This year TheYoungFolks is proud to cover the New York Asian Film Festival (NYAFF) which seeks to spotlight contemporary and recent Asian filmmaking. Additional information, screening schedules, and contact information for the festival can be found HERE. We continue today with our second roundup. Our last roundup can be found HERE.
[Mild spoilers ahead] [TW: Rape]
I went from liking to hating to loving Pun Homchuen and Onusa Donsawai’s Grace within the span of about 30 minutes. Within that time, the film went from being a decent home invasion flick to a grotesque piece of exploitation then back around to a tragic psychological study. The crux of it is that with hindsight all three pieces work together to form a cohesive whole. Grace is one of the most effective, damning, and disturbing explorations of otakudom, cosplay, and teen idols since Satoshi Kon’s Perfect Blue (1997).
It begins when ex-cosplay idol Grace (Apinya Sakuljaroensuk) and her “number-one fan,” a deranged otaku named Jack (Nutthasit Kotimanuswanich), take hostage a rising idol named Care (Napasasi Surawan) along with her best friend Ple. Stricken with jealously over her meteoric rise to Facebook fame, Grace torments and abuses Care before goading Jack into raping her. This was about the time I started hating Grace—I’ve developed a zero tolerance policy for rape used to create shock value. But I’m glad that I kept watching. The home invasion narrative gets juxtaposed with Grace’s backstory, a technique which admittedly threw me off for most of the first half of the film. We slowly learn that Grace is a victim herself. After gaining some popularity as a cosplayer, she was raped by people at a convention she appeared at-worse, her rape was recorded and put on facebook by one of her fellow cosplayers who resented her popularity.
As the events of Grace’s past slowly converge with the beginning of the film, we realize that the internet culture of fame, ubiquitous pornography, and the exploitation of young women has warped her mind. In the wake of her assault and humiliation, some part of her began to identify sex as the only means of power available to her. After all, people loved her when she was sexy, and, perversely, her number of Facebook followers skyrocketed after her assault was posted. So she controls Jack with sex, dressing up as the scantily clad women on his bedroom walls, reenacting scenes from his hentai videos, and establishes complete dominance over Care with her rape. I won’t tell you where the film goes from there, but believe that the last half takes more than a few pages from the New French Extremity’s playbook. If what I’ve written so far has put you off, I would urge you not to see Grace. It’s a difficult film with difficult ideas which barrels towards a difficult ending. It only wears the skin of a thriller. Be warned.
Can I just say how refreshing it is to see a festival circuit film by a first-time director that’s only 75 minutes? One of the first things I ever learned covering film festivals was to stay far away from début features that were over two hours long. My hopes were high for Kim Jin-hwang’s The Boys Who Cried Wolf. It helped that the film, Jin-hwang’s dissertation project at the Korean Academy of Fine Arts (KAFA), had recently made waves in South Korea after it won the Directors Guild Award at the 2015 Busan Film Festival.
The film follows Wan-ju, a failed actor who sells his services as a hired wingman or boyfriend; essentially a non-sexual escort. But he gets approached by a mysterious woman with an even more mysterious proposal: act the part of an eyewitness in an ongoing murder investigation. After giving his testimony, he becomes suspicious that his employer may not be on the up and up. When he discovers that the woman who hired him was an imposter, he sets out to discover the truth behind the murder case and why he was hired to frame a potentially innocent man. All this sounds like the makings of an intense thriller, a genre South Korea has largely perfected in the last decade, but the film languishes and stumbles. Jin-hwang treats his material as he would a reticent drama, draining all the blood and fire from the storyline; its withered pace stagnates any narrative momentum. The characters all speak in hesitant monotone, pausing and sighing as they stare at the ground or at their shoes regardless of whether they’re having lunch, lying to the police, or uncovering a conspiracy concerning the South Korean military. The vast majority of the film takes place either in aesthetically uninteresting rooms, offices, hallways, or alleys. Jin-hwang doesn’t even show a coherent visual style. So what kind of film is he trying to make? A thriller? If so, it fails. A drama about identity politics vis-à-vis the nature of performance? Perhaps, but he doesn’t use it to say anything. There’s no grand statement, no satisfying observation about its characters or humanity in general. By the end when the various pieces of the mystery fell into place, I was too apathetic to care. I’m glad that the film was only 75 minutes. I don’t think I could have stood it if it had been over two hours.