With the coming of mid-July comes the ending of the New York Asian Film Festival. Now in its 18th year, this annual collection of films remains one of the only places in New York City where audiences can watch films from such cinematically overlooked Asian countries as Vietnam, Taiwan, and the Philippines while indulging in rarer offerings from mainstays in the international movie scene as Japan, South Korea, and Hong Kong. From its humble beginnings as an eleven film retrospective held at the Anthology Film Archives courtesy of Subway Cinema, it has exploded to feature a whopping forty films this year including several international premiers alongside panels with filmmakers and actors. The NYAFF has always prided itself on programming the unusual and offbeat and a cursory glance at their line-up confirms that they’ve maintained that giddy love of the unexpected: Singaporean zombie comedies, Tibetan art films, Chinese CGI adventures…the list goes on.
Long-time attendees will be relieved to learn that 2019 sees the return of a modestly interesting main slate of films vying for the annual Uncaged Award for Best Feature Film. As we reported last year, the 2018 main slate was a puzzling mixture of some of the most tepid and underwhelming films featured at the festival. It was almost as if the festival organizers were worried they’d lose critical credibility if one of its more bizarre offerings took home the big prize. (How else to explain the sidelining of Anthony Chan’s dazzling rock musical biopic House of the Rising Sons in favor of the woefully tepid Men on the Dragon?) But 2019 sees a more modestly robust lineup of riskier, bolder films. There are still a few clunkers, but overall the slate hopefully demonstrates a move towards the defiant brashness of the festival’s founders.
[Full disclosure: due to scheduling conflicts, we were unable to view the seventh film competing for the award, Wu Nan’s Push and Shove.]
On the fifteenth day of the Chinese lunar calendar, Taiwan celebrates the Lantern festival where families light paper lanterns to celebrate love and freedom. The citizens of Taitung City, however, celebrate a much more dangerous, much more flammable tradition come festival time. There, they venerate Han Dan, the “Military Deity of Wealth” in Chinese folk religion, by parading half-naked young men down the street and throwing firecrackers at them. There’s a whole list of taboos involved: the young men must be abstinent of meat, alcohol, and women for three weeks prior and can wear nothing but earplugs for the noise and carry a tree branch to wave away the smoke. By the end, their bodies are burnt and bloodied, stark symbols of masculine courage. But it has another meaning, one of atonement both literally and figuratively through fire. It’s this meaning permeating Huang Chao-liang’s Han Dan, the story of two rivals whose lives are permanently shattered and intertwined by the ritual. The first is Lin Zheng-kun, a kind college student studying to be a teacher. The second is Ming-yi, an arrogant drug dealer. The two grew up together and fell in love with the same woman, a wannabe pop-star named Xuan. She ends up falling for Ming-yi, and Zheng, after catching the two having sex in an alley, rages at the unjustness of the world and tries to kill his rival with a deadly firework the night of the Lantern Festival. Tragically, Xuan gets caught in the crossfire and burns to death. Six months later, Zheng is still a student but Ming-yi, deafened and mutilated by the firework, has become a thief and drug addict. Crushed by his guilt, Zheng determines to save Ming-yi from his addiction and, perhaps in the process, save himself. The first half of Han Dan moves with the briskness and viciousness of an early 00s Park Chan-Wook film, at times feeling like a moral parable. The second half settles into a slower, more contemplative character piece filled with odd subplots like Zheng’s romance with a suicidal prostitute and clashes with a local crime boss. But somehow Chao-liang never keeps the halves from clashing, transforming it into a powerful tale of redemption and brotherhood. The multiple firebombing sequences alone are some of the most striking and psychologically awe-inspiring so far in 2019—they’re pyrotechnic poetry.
It probably won’t help audiences get a handle on Yi Ok-seop’s debut film Maggie by telling them that the titular Maggie is a catfish. Not just a catfish, mind you, but a talking catfish that can predict earthquakes. Even more, that this clairvoyant chordate only really has one scene of note in the whole film, a brief aside where a frantic hospital patient starts a small panic by divining an imminent earthquake from the fish’s movements. From there, Maggie appears largely as an offscreen narrator, commenting on the love lives and inner anxieties of its characters as they navigate a bizarre dream version of South Korea. But this is par for the course for Maggie, a defiantly absurdist whatzit with a barely concealed mean streak of social commentary towards contemporary Korea. More stream-of-consciousness short story collection than single coherent narrative, the film is a series of vignettes largely centering around nurse Yoon-Young, an employee in a private hospital, and her sporadically unemployed boyfriend Sung-wan as they navigate the gradual disintegration of their relationship. The first fifteen minutes brilliantly set the tone of the whole film as Yoon-Young’s hospital is hit by a scandal when two of her co-workers are covertly X-rayed while having sex in the X-ray lab and the photos plastered all over the campus. Coincidentally, as Yoon-Young and Sung-wan have also used the lab for irradiated playtime, they’re convinced that they’re the culprits. However, when she goes to work the next day to resign, she finds that literally every other employee except her long-suffering boss Dr. Lee have mysteriously called in sick—it seems the X-ray lab got more action than an OB-GYN office. From there Ok-seop dissects youthful amorality, generational economic disenfranchisement, and rapid gentrification through surrealist set-pieces. Maggie is the rare film where it’s impossible to predict what one will see or hear next: shots of children chanting “attempted murder” while jumping on a marble-covered trampoline might lead to Dr. Lee releasing a gorilla named Shaun White into the wilds of the Congo before cutting to a man in traction with three broken limbs playing badminton. But one feels a purpose behind Ok-seop’s madcap spontaneity, that it’s only through garbled, fantastical randomness that a whole generation can find sense or semblance of their struggles in the modern age.
5 Million Dollar Life
There’s a certain tension inherent in Moon Sung-ho’s 5 Million Dollar Life, one without which it would’ve been doomed to life as forgettable pablum. This tension comes from the clash between the story’s two natures: sunny life-affirming optimism and chillingly cruel darkness. Many directors can’t bear the weight of this contradiction, but somehow Sung-ho manages, resulting in a film of truly puzzling tonal conflict and thematic convictions. The cheeky high-concept story feels so much the product of anime and manga that it’s surprising to learn it doesn’t seem to be an adaptation but an original product. After his life was saved as a toddler by an emergency heart transplant crowd-funded by his neighbors, teenager Mirai Takatsuki has lived his life as a local celebrity, annually fêted by his community and the media on the anniversary of his operation. Now in his final year of high school, he’s crushed by the burden of expectations to repay the world’s kindness and attention with a life of tireless servitude as a doctor. Too bad he has no interest in being a doctor—or even living long enough to become one. After a series of vicious anonymous text messages guilting him over the cumulative cost of his operation—the equivalent of $5 million—he runs away from home to earn enough money to pay back the community. Afterwards, now feeling guiltless, he plans on committing suicide. From there Sung-ho weaves a madcap picaresque narrative as Mirai bounces from odd job to odd job. Some are played for comedy, such as his disastrous attempt to work as a construction day laborer and a bizarre interlude where he inadvertently hires himself out as a pajama onesie-wearing “sleep companion” for lonely women. Others are shockingly dark, such as his eventual decision to sell his virginity, being tricked into a debt collection scam targeting older women, and being forced to clean up the crime scene of a gangland execution of a family who owed $20,000. This is the kind of movie only a late-capitalist hellscape could produce, one where a person’s life is literally assigned a numerical value and the necessity of “paying it back” could lead one of such innocence into such darkness. The film’s preoccupation with suicide feels incidental in the face of this economic reality. Intentionally or not, Sung-ho has made an oddly entertaining socialist polemic.
Drama, comedy, and tragedy collide in Another Child, the directorial debut of actor Kim Yoon-seok, a NYAFF alumni whose lead performance in Jang Jae-hyun’s exorcist thriller The Priest (2015) helped make it one of the stand-out films of the 2016 festival. But there are no demons or ghosts haunting Another Child, just the casual cruelties we human beings cast on each other. The film centers on two high school girls, Joo-ri and Yoon-ha, whose paths cross when they discover that their parents are having an affair with each other. Neither of their lives have been easy: Joo-ri has become calloused after spending years trapped in the middle of her parents’ disintegrating marriage while Yoon-ha spends her nights working an illegal part-time job to help support her single mother Mi-hee, an emotionally immature restauranteur who got pregnant at seventeen. At first the girls are content with ignoring each other, but when news drops that Mi-hee is not only pregnant but intends to keep the baby, the two come to blows, literally. And so too do their mothers when Joo-ri’s mom Yeong-ju confronts Mi-hee at her restaurant, a confrontation which sees the latter injured and shocked into premature labor. From there Yoon-seok conducts a subdued yet surprisingly powerful film about multi-generational resentment and compassion as the two girls and their families try to reconcile their shattered lives and figure out what to do with the innocent baby. If it survives at all, that is. One of Yoon-seok’s cleverest touches is the constant mirroring between the mothers’ and the daughters’ relationships—we assume that the benefit of age would provide Yeong-ju and Mi-hee with a certain detachment or wisdom, but their viciousness towards each other matches, if not exceeds, those of their daughters, suggesting that traumatic events such as adultery and pregnancy reach within us to reveal inner weaknesses decades of maturity fail to smooth out. Yet Yoon-seok’s coup is insisting that tragedy and cruelty aren’t the endgame, merely stepping stones towards reconciliation and healing. It’s no coincidence that the philandering father Kwon Dae-won, the only character who spends the runtime fleeing his responsibilities, is the only one to not receive redemption. Indeed, most of the film’s comedy comes from the increasingly absurd and terrible karmic punishments cast upon him by the cosmos.
Lying to Mom
People respond to grief in different ways. Some get counseling, some repress it, and some surrender to it. But Yuko Suzuki has a very different reaction when she discovers that her thirty year old hikikomori son Koichi hanged himself in his room: she opens her wrists with a kitchen knife and falls into a coma. Forty-nine days later—an auspicious anniversary in Zen Buddhism after which it’s believed the consciousness finally leaves a deceased person’s body—she wakes up in a hospital bed with retrograde amnesia, totally oblivious that her beloved son killed himself. Her family, working through their own grief, can’t bear to tell Yuko the truth, so they create a lavish fantasy that he’s moved to Argentina to work for his uncle Hiroshi’s seafood plant. His sister Fumi writers “letters” from her brother during lunch at school and emails them to one of Hiroshi’s coworkers abroad who forges his handwriting on postcards. They decorate Koichi’s room with Argentinian paraphernalia and even get English-speaking gaijin to record video messages talking about how great Koichi is. One might find this a bittersweet testament of one family’s love for their matriarch. Others might find this shockingly shallow cowardice. And still others might pause, scratch their heads, and wonder whether this wasn’t almost the exact same plot to Wolfgang Becker’s Good Bye, Lenin! (2003), a German tragicomedy where a son living in East Germany creates an elaborate plot to convince his mother that they still live under Communism despite her having been in a coma through the 1989 November revolution. That film is one of the most memorable European films of the early twenty-first century. Katsumi Nojiri’s Lying to Mom, however, is not. A crushingly overlong, stupefyingly maudlin film that believes the odd moment of comedy is enough to provide levity amongst such severe subject matter, Nojiri’s film is a true test of audience patience. One almost wishes Nojiri had dropped the entire deception angle and just made the film about the family working through their trauma, as the best scenes in the film do just that. Actress Mai Kiryû absolutely steals the show as Fumi, particularly in one scene where she reads a letter she’d written to Koichi in a grief support group and comes unglued, weeping and screaming that she’ll never forgive him. In fact, one wishes they had ignored the mother entirely in favor of her.
One of the most cherished traditions among the New York City film festival scene is that every year the NYAFF features at least one film of stomach-churning ultra violence involving children whose carnage is outdone only by its amoral nihilism. Last year’s selection was Eisuke Naito’s Liverleaf, a revenge thriller about slaughtering high school bullies. Before that in 2017 was Le Binh Giang’s ode to necrophilic cannibalism KFC and Giddens Ko’s Mon Mon Mon Monsters, the latter being perhaps the most misanthropic film in the festival’s history. And in 2016 there was Pun Homchuen and Onusa Donsawai’s Grace, a film about cosplay idols kidnapping and raping each other. This year comes Kenneth Lim Dagatan’s Ma, a Filipino horror movie that leaves no room for misconceptions as to its nature from its very first shot, a young boy stabbing a crow with a stick in the middle of the woods. From there Dagatan channels Catholic imagery, Southeast Asian folklore, and the French New Extremity—particularly Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo’s home invasion thriller Inside (2007)—to tell a story of love and filial piety gone horribly, horribly wrong. The film centers on Samuel, a child who discovers a cave in the woods populated by a small tree that offers a magical boon in exchange for a gift. Recently orphaned after his single mother dies—after unexpectedly throwing up several liters of raspberry jam all over their kitchen table at dinnertime, natch—he butchers his pregnant pet cat as a sacrifice. At first it seems to work, as his mother is resurrected, but as a monotone, suicidal shade of her former self who wanders about like a zombie. After collapsing a second time, the boy returns to the cave and learns that the tree desires another offering to keep his mother alive, something more potent than a pregnant kitty. And wouldn’t you know that one of his mother’s old friends, a recently widowed young woman, recently came to town to visit? A heavily pregnant old friend. Ma pulls no punches with its carnage: jugulars are stabbed, acid is consumed, fetuses are vomited, children are eviscerated. Only Dagatan’s languid pacing and suffocating atmosphere keeps it from devolving into goresploitation schlock. Still, one can’t help but feel that this is a short film brutally stretched out to feature length. Even at 72 minutes it feels padded, a cardinal sin for spectacle-heavy horror.