What happened to this year’s New York Asian Film Festival main competition slate? For the last 17 years, the NYAFF has prided itself on being one of the most unusual, unpredictable, and daring festivals not just in New York but in America, thumbing its nose at traditional standards of artistic propriety and scheduling the boldest, the strangest, and the most uncomfortable films Asia has to offer. This year is no exception—from odd meta-horror comedies to steroid-chugging actionsploitation, their program is a veritable smorgasbord of the odd and fantastic. But little of that energy seems to have been put into curating their picks for their annual Jury Prize. This year’s competition films are among the dullest, blandest, and safest of the entire festival.
Consider the two competition films from Japan: one a soul-crushing sludge, the other a tepid retread of genre tropes. First we have Eisuke Naitô’s Liverleaf, a film that can best be described as a bullying revenge flick. Every year there’s at least one NYAFF film demonstrating that distinctive blend of Southeast Asian misanthropic nihilism that doesn’t just make you hate the human race but hate the fact that you’re alive in the first place. They invariably feature graphic violence, usually towards children, teenagers, young women, and sometimes all three. Liverleaf fills that quota, centering on Haruka (Anna Yamada), an emotionally cloistered new girl in a snowy country village who’s tormented by a group of bullies so over the top they make even the most vicious Stephen King villains look like Teletubbies. They steal her clothes, carve “Go Die” on her desk, leave dead birds in her belongings, and even assault her father with spiked cleat shoes. But the bullies take things too far one day when they accidentally burn her house down, killing her parents and hospitalizing her little sister. Traumatized so badly she literally can’t talk, she enacts her vengeance by brutally, painfully, and graphically murdering her tormentors.
Throughout the course of Liverleaf, the film takes a nauseating glee in depicting the horrific deaths of young teens as any slasher film—we’re here as much to watch these children suffer and die as we are to experience any kind of emotional catharsis. Unfortunately Naitô makes the rookie mistake of killing off too many of the teenagers in the second act, forcing the film to pull the drag chute in the last 30 minutes by adding an eye-rolling subplot that suggests pubescent lesbian jealousy was at the root of all the bullying and murder. But it doesn’t fit. Perhaps one could find beauty in the gorgeous cinematography that makes the best of Japan’s rural wintry vistas or the bittersweet romantic longing buried deep beneath the carnage. But you’ll probably leave the film feeling drained, disturbed, and depressed at the state of humanity—and not in the masochistic fun way favored by so many hardened intellectuals.
Kazuya Shiraishi’s The Blood of Wolves won’t do much for the initiated gangster cinema fan, as it’s as deliberate and self-conscious a classic yakuza cinema throwback as can be imagined. Set in the waning days of the Showa era when the yakuza were at their height, the film follows two stereotypical Hiroshima gang cops: Ogami (Koji Yakusho), a flagrantly corrupt veteran seemingly more eager to sleep with female witnesses and play the slots than do police work, and Hioka (Tori Matsuzaka), a straight-faced, straight-laced rookie so insistent on due process he refuses to defend himself against violent perps even though he’s a karate expert. It’s loud, ballsy, misogynist (the only women are soapland prostitutes and one-dimensional love interests), prone to outbursts of gruesome carnage, and overly concerned with the minutiae of gangster politics regarding leadership succession, gang rivalries, and personal vendettas.
As is usually the case, Ogami, the bad cop, proves the most fascinating character as a cynical nihilist who predictably reveals a deeper undercurrent of compassion and righteousness—aside from the aforementioned witness-screwing and suspect-torturing, that is. His attitude that the yakuza can’t be stopped but can only be “neutered” by forcing it into a legal netherworld where they can be steered away from warfare and more violent offenses is startlingly refreshing for the genre. The film fails to follow through with the ethical implications of policemen becoming as bad or worse than the yakuza in the name of containing them, ending with a glorification of shirking due process and hitting criminals first before they hit back. There isn’t enough stylistic bravery or narrative originality in The Blood of Wolves to justify such short-sightedness as a byproduct of creating harmless popcorn entertainment.
Shiraishi’s film wasn’t the only good cop/bad cop film in the main competition this year. There’s Namron’s gritty Malaysian crime drama Crossroads: One Two Jaga, a film with a more pronounced and weighty visual panache. The dominating image in the film is that of the plain manila envelope. Over and over again, the camera bends down to zoom in on these innocent looking envelopes stuffed with bribes and protection payments as they exchange hands in the mean streets of Kuala Lumpur. Cop, criminal, civilian, it’s all the same—everybody has to pay up. The film’s greatest strength is depicting this ubiquity of corruption in Malaysian society as a blight reaching across age, gender, and social class. Its failing, however, is keeping all of these storylines straight as it sacrifices narrative clarity—arguably the most important element of hyperlink narratives like this one—in favor of a disjointedness that may have been a deliberate creative decision, but nonetheless makes Crossroads a slog despite its 80 minute run-time. There are three central storylines, each with multiple characters that all get their own POV sequences: an immigrant family trying to smuggle themselves back home to Indonesia after their crooked employer confiscates their passports; the relationship between a hardened gangster and a young boy who idolizes him as a big brother; and, of course, the aforementioned rookie good-cop and veteran bad-cop partnership. The film has received much early critical attention for its treatment of its illegal immigrant characters, and indeed Namron handles them with a great deal of attention without infantilizing them as helpless victims.
Curiously, it’s the tired good-cop/bad-cop storyline that feels the most original, mostly because it bucks audience expectations by implying that it’s the over-zealous good cop who might be the ruthless, dangerous, and mentally unstable one; it’s the bad-cop who takes bribes and runs a protection racket that we come to sympathize with the most—at the very least he’s doing it for his family. Crossroads makes the fatal error of introducing too many characters in its first fifteen minutes and not establishing them properly; by the end of the film I still wasn’t sure of many of their names, a problem exacerbated by the writer giving many of them similar-sounding ones (Sumiyati/Sugiman, Hussein/Hassan). There’s a grim power to Crossroads, but its incohesiveness keeps it from reaching its full potential.
Treb Monteras’ Respeto, a coming-of-age story about a teenage battle rapper from the Philippines, also takes risky narrative chances, but it sticks the landing more successfully than its Southeast Asian peer. Those going into it looking for a Filipino 8 Mile will be sorely disappointed. Yes, it follows the struggles of an impoverished nobody making his bones in the world of underground cyphers, but the similarities largely end there. Monteras’ story of Hendrix (Abra)—a street urchin who sells drugs for his abusive sister and her boyfriend—is more a cross of Do the Right Thing (1989) and City of God (2002): a caustic, poetic, and tragic examination of wounded masculinity and political unrest set in a gutter wonderland of slums, alleyways, and garbage. By the last act, music almost vanishes from the story as it instead interrogates the hurt and pain that drove Hendrix to rap in the first place and questions whether he will ever escape them. We learn he raps not because of a desire for wealth or women (although that’s part of it); he raps to fulfill a desperate need for recognition and “respeto,” the Filipino word for “respect.”
After buying his way into the cypher club with his sister’s boyfriend’s drug money, he’s humiliated by a female rapper. When the boyfriend throws him out after discovering he took their money, he gets caught robbing a used bookstore by its owner Doc (Dido de la Paz), an elderly poet and former revolutionary. As Hendrix works at the store to make up for his theft, the two form not so much a friendship as a combative co-dependency neither wants to admit to. Though he’s never mentioned by name, the film makes constant reference to a corrupt politician seemingly inspired by current Filipino president Rodrigo Roa Duterte, a strongman notorious for sponsoring the extrajudicial murder of drug users and criminals. Political demonstrations and secret police haunt both Hendrix’s slums and Doc’s nightmares, driving these two opposite people into each others’ lives and arms, suggesting that said shared trauma might be more important to a unified Filipino identity than any musical or poetic movement. It’s a heart-breaking conclusion, but one that fits the equally heart-breaking ending.
The Chinese selection for this year’s main slate, Yue Dong’s meditative crime thriller The Looming Storm, is similarly heart-breaking, but its ending leaves one feeling cheated. It masquerades as a murderous whodunit, but it’s actually a disturbing character study of a mind mildewed by economic depression and inescapable rain. Said rain is a constant in The Looming Storm, draining the rural countryside in which it’s set of color and caking the nearby provincial villagers with mud. Winter approaches, and the cold rains force the old and elderly into noodle shops and the young and bored into brothels. It’s some time before the first woman is found slashed and mutilated under a bridge near the plant, and before long the authorities identify three others. Bored with his work and titillated by the mystery, local security guard You Guowei (Duhan Yihong) sets out to catch the murderer, investigating the crime scenes and reenacting the killings with the help of his assistant. The local police warn him off, but he persists, his fascination devolving into a fully-fledged obsession.
Curiously, the central murder mystery vanishes for large chunks of its runtime as we peer deeper and deeper into You’s life. All this slow drama nicely juxtaposes the occasional spasms of tension and action—such as a brilliant sequence where You chases a hooded suspect through a derelict train yard—which underscores the malignant tedium of life in a dying industrial center. A storm isn’t just coming to You’s town: one has already arrived, washing away the remnants of its past—remnants like Party exemplar You. The Looming Storm depends largely on a third act plot twist that re-contextualizes the rest of the film. Your mileage will depend heavily on whether you feel Dong earned the twist or not. But it isn’t set up as meticulously as many twist crime thrillers from, say, South Korea, the current industry gold standard for unpredictable genre filmmaking.
Speaking of South Korea, their film this year was the most quiet and understated of the bunch: first-time director Jeon Go-woon’s Microhabitat, a minor-key coming-of-delayed-age dramedy effusing a gentle melancholic glow. It follows Miso (Esom) who’d like nothing more than to remain a cheerfully irresponsible slacker the rest of her life. Holed up in a tiny apartment and working the odd job cleaning houses, she relishes the happy contentment of perpetual laziness. What little money she doesn’t spend on rent she happily wastes on cigarettes and whiskey in-between perfunctory bouts of lovemaking with her cartoonist boyfriend Han-sol (Ahn Jae-hong). But her perfectly manicured life collapses New Year’s Day 2015 when a new government sales tax increases the price of her favorite cigarettes and her landlord decides to raise the rent. Scribbling her expenses out on a notepad, she realizes she has to give something up. So she makes the logical decision of keeping the whiskey, keeping the cigarettes, keeping the directionless boyfriend, and nixing her apartment.
After moving out, Miso reconnects with the five members of her old college band, drifting from one apartment to the next in her search for a permanent place to crash. Though on the surface each of these friends seem to have respectable lives, Miso discovers they’re all crippled one way or another by insecurities, social pressures, failed relationships, and ruined expectation. Each of these characters seem an interrogation of various South Korean social anxieties—they’ve all transcended Miso’s personal immaturity, but none have truly gained the supposed benefits of adulthood. Small wonder Miso is so reluctant to grow up; but grow up she must. Go-woon deceptively sharp directing keeps Microhabitat from wobbling off the tightrope into puerile whimsy or woe-is-me misery, instead creating a lovely portrait of a life in painful yet necessary transition with all the humor, drama, and tragedy accompanying it. But the film is undeniably slight. It’s as gentle as a breeze, and as equally substantial.
The best film of this year’s slate is their Hong Kong offering, Sunny Chan’s Men on the Dragon, a breezy, sporadically moving sports dramedy about a group of middle aged schlubs overcoming mid-life crises to collectively go the distance. After getting wind of imminent corporate layoffs, four telecom employees join their company’s dragon boat team in a last-ditch effort to garner favor from the higher ups. Each of them also deals with personal struggles at home that the racing allows them to exorcize.
There’s the usual mushy emotional pablum as these men find value working towards a common goal—the group exhaustion of initial training, the psychological horror at preparing for their first race, the psychological elation at not being disqualified in said first race, the promise of glory, the agony of defeat, the sadness as the team breaks up, the joy when they reunite, and the churning, burning hope as they prepare for the big finale. What sets Men on the Dragon apart from so many other tired underdog sports dramas is its sincerely easy charm and warmth. It’s difficult to dislike a film so, well, likable. The film remains stubbornly predictable and at no point do we imagine the team not winning in the end, the protagonists not climbing their way out of their personal miseries, the ending not climaxing in syrupy sweetness. For all its endearing niceness, it’s minor and ultimately insignificant. It’s absurd to imagine this was the film that was selected to represent Hong Kong.
But then, all of the films in the main slate seem like safe choices for their respective countries—even Liverleaf seems safe in its own way as the festival’s mandatory concession to their transgressive roots. Consider instead the following substitutions:
—Instead of Liverleaf or The Blood of Wolves, try Shin’ichirô Ueda’s bizarro horror whatchamacallit One Cut of the Dead, perhaps the most formalistically audacious film of the festival with a mind-boggling concept that’ll leave you with the biggest, goofiest grin once you figure it out.
—Instead of Crossroads: One Two Jaga, try Dain Said’s “true crime” horror-thriller Dukun, a fascinating cross between a courtroom drama and a police procedural that was banned for over a decade in its native country for offensive content.
—Instead of Respeto, try Erik Matti’s BuyBust, an insane action film firmly positioned within the more-is-more-is-more camp.
—Instead of The Looming Storm, try Dante Lam’s Operation Red Sea. Yeah, it might be unapologetic Chinese navy propaganda, but it’s like Michael Bay directed the love-child of Black Hawk Down and Mad Max: Fury Road.
—Instead of Microhabitat, try Lee Il-ha’s Counters, a vitally important documentary about the rise of internet era nationalist hate groups in Japan and the counter-protestors who’ve arisen to fight back.
—Instead of Men on the Dragon, try Anthony Chan’s madcap House of the Rising Sons, the true-ish story of the rise, fall, and rise of 70s Cantopop icons The Wynners. If the main competition Jury Prize was given out purely on the merit of brash, breathless energy and Devil-May-Care creativity, this film would be a shoe in for first place.
There are no standouts in this year’s main slate, no masterpieces hiding in the wings like last year’s winner, Nattawut Poonpiriya’s superb Bad Genius. For a festival as audacious as NYAFF, that can be worse than programming a schedule full of nothing but stinkers. Let us hope next year’s slate can turn things around.