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 third roundup. Our other roundups can be found HERE and HERE.
People are strangely drawn to Nishino-san, the shallow-eyed next-door neighbor. One moment he’s friendly, the next he’s abrasive and cruel. He stares at the world as if cognizant of a different plane of reality, detached from this one except for the brief moments he latches onto a passersby. He has a wife, but nobody has seen her. He has a daughter, but she acts like a frightened animal. You’d think that Koichi Takakura, an ex-police detective who specialized in the study of serial killers, would have immediately flagged his bizarre behavior after moving next door to him with his wife Yasuko but Koichi remains strangely aloof. He’s distracted by a cold case he’s discovered while working at his new job as a college professor teaching criminal psychology: six years earlier three family members disappeared in Hino City. This wouldn’t be so strange if not for the fact that they left behind a daughter who gave a series of such jumbled, contradictory testimonies to the police that they were eventually thrown out. When he investigates the case, explores the old Hino City house, and interviews the surviving daughter, he seems to come alive. He becomes so preoccupied that he doesn’t notice his wife’s obsession with Nishino-san. Even after being repeatedly rebuffed by his repugnant manners and rudeness, Yasuko keeps trying to become friends with him. At one point she even invites him into their home for a cooking lesson. Soon she isn’t herself anymore. She makes strange phone calls in the middle of the day, becomes lethargic, and explodes at Koichi for the most insignificant things. And all the time Nishino-san lurks in the background, smiling, frowning, smiling. It’s clear he’s a monster. But what kind?
The answer: the real life kind. He is the maelstrom at the center of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s new film Creepy, a languid thriller that’s such a slow-burn it makes Robert Eggers’ The Witch (2015) feel like an 80s slasher. For Kurosawa, the film marks a return to the thrillers that helped make a name for himself in the late 90s like Cure (1997) and Charisma (1999) before he became the internationally renowned master of J-horror with films like Seance (2000) and his masterpiece Pulse (2001). I ended up liking Creepy: it just took me the first two hours of its 130 minute runtime to realize that I did. Before the various plot points converge in the last thirty minutes, the film feels like a mishmash of unrelated narrative cul-de-sacs. It’s to Kurosawa’s credit that he was able to wrangle them all into something coherent and affecting. I was particularly impressed by the ending which found a nice compromise between the brutalist nihilism of so many thrillers of its ilk (like Pun Homchuen and Onusa Donsawaifellow’s Grace (12016), another film showing this year at NYAFF) and traditional happy endings. Some of the story beats left me frustrated: why did not one, not two, but three different policemen go into the Scary Basement without telling anyone where they were going? But the film delivers on the promise of its title. Let’s just say that I made a terrible, terrible mistake watching it right before going to bed last night…
Shot on a measly budget of RM300,000 (around $73,300), Shanjhey Kumar Peruma’s Jagat has the look and feel of a considerably larger production. To watch it, one might be surprised that 90% of the main characters were played by first time actors, many of whom pulled double duty behind the scenes as technicians. Equally surprising is the revelation that this jagged gem of Malaysian cinema originated as a comedy. But within the eleven years it took for Peruma to secure financing and actually shoot it, the film evolved from a cheery comedy about his childhood in Parit Buntar to a devastating drama equal parts gangster film and coming-of-age story. Much of the advertising focuses on Appoy (Harvind Raj), a twelve-year old boy with a head full of dreams and a thirst for creative expression. When asked to write an essay at school, he writes a short story about a pen that can fly. When instructed to make paintings using vegetables as tools, he creates a lavish collage of swirling colors while his fellow students use bits and pieces of their greens as oversized stamps. When told to make an outfit for a school costume party, he cobbles together a shockingly convincing Michael Jackson get-up out of scraps and trash. But his artistic impulses are figuratively beaten out of him by his tyrannical teachers who only care about facts and literally beaten out of him by his domineering father. While the film begins with Appoy as the protagonist, it gradually branches out to explore several other members of his family until he is practically a supporting character. His father Maniam (Kuben Mahadevan), is an exhausted laborer who fears his son might be doomed for a lifetime of delinquency if he pursues his dreams of becoming an artist. There is his uncle Bala (Senthil Kumaran Muniandy), a reclusive drug addict who becomes a surrogate father figure to Appoy when he has to flee from his home. Then Dorai (Jibrail Rajhula), a local gangster who goes by the nickname “Mexico.” All of them paint a tragic portrait of the lives of Indian Malaysians in the early 1990s, forced into urban squalor in the wake of massive unemployment. In a sense the film can be read as a giant metaphor—certainly this is partly what Peruma intended. But it can also be viewed as a simple story of lost hopes and squandered potential in the face of economic inequality and plain human cruelty. These myriad interpretations help propel Jagat into the spheres of great art.
WHAT A WONDERFUL FAMILY!
I’ve had to sit through some tough subject matter so far at this year’s New York Asian Film Festival: kidnappings, rape, serial killings, child abuse, literal demons. Perhaps that’s why I reacted so strongly to Yoji Yamada’s What a Wonderful Family!, a warm-souled, gently humorous film about a family struggling to keep itself together. It grows intense without becoming mean-spirited or nasty; funny without becoming farcical or forced. It channels the quiet contentedness and understated playfulness of Yasujirō Ozu’s comedies (his film Tokyo Story  even makes a prominent cameo late in the third act).
It begins when an elderly grandfather named Shuzo (Isao Hashizume) comes home one night after a pleasant evening of drinking to find his wife of 50 years, Tomiko (Kazuko Yoshiyuki), asking for a divorce. Apparently several decades worth of little annoyances—his farting in the morning, his unwillingness to put the toilet seat up, his habit of leaving his clothes strewn all over the place—have accumulated to the point of madness. All the passion and love from the marriage has been replaced with a sense of marital duty and decorum. What’s worse, Shuzo didn’t even seem to notice her unhappiness. The tension mounts when Shuzo’s daughter comes home the next day and announces her intentions of divorcing her husband after discovering he lied about spending an astronomical amount on an antique plate. Then comes the news that his long-time bachelor son has finally decided to get married and move out of the house—terrible news considering that he had been used for years as a buffer between Shuzo and his eldest son. In the face of the complete dissolution of his household, Shuzo collapses into a cantankerous state, deliberately giving out shocking, socially unacceptable advice to anyone unfortunate enough to ask. I suspect viewers unfamiliar with the protocols of Japanese manners and niceties will find the reactions to his declarations alternatively quaint and preposterous. Could having two elderly grandparents divorce really be such a source of shame? Could it really be a factor in denying their grandchildren entry into prestigious schools? If you’re Japanese, the answer, of course, is yes. Thankfully the film injects enough humor to keep the proceedings from becoming too dour. What a Wonderful Family! isn’t the best film I’ve seen this year at NYAFF and it probably won’t win any awards; it probably won’t even end up on my year’s end Best Of list. But of all the films I’ve seen so far at the festival, this is the one that I will probably hold the closest to my heart.