Saturday, June 30, 2012

New York Asian Film Festival 2012: Review Roundup

The New York Asian Film Festival kicked off last night, and it will continue at the Walter Reade Theater, Japan Society, and Tribeca Cinemas through July 15. Click here for more info and to purchase tickets.

My NYAFF 2012 preview is now up over at Film-Forward. Below are brief reviews of the opening night films.

War of the Arrows (Kim Han-min)

A costume drama of breathless immediacy, Kim’s third feature employs the Manchu War of 1636, during which the Qing Dynasty of China invaded and enslaved hundreds of thousands of Koreans, as the backdrop for thrilling chases and convincing scenes of archery. The second half of the film is basically an extended chase scene, and the opening sequence hits the ground running, as an accused traitor is hunted down and executed in front of his two children, themselves in hiding from the authorities. Cut to 13 years later, and the two grown-up siblings Nam-Yi (Park Hae-il) and his younger sister Ja-in (Moon Chae-won) have been raised by friends of their father, with Ja-in about to marry Seo-Goon (Kim Mu-yeol), the son of the family. Nam-Yi fritters away his days in drunken despair over forever being branded the son of a traitor, and though he vehemently opposes his sister’s marriage, he is powerless to prevent it. On his sister’s wedding day, his family has the misfortune of being directly in the path of the Manchu invaders, and his sister, along with their entire village, is captured and enslaved. Nam-Yi escapes the carnage and finds a renewed sense of purpose in fulfilling his father’s parting directive to take care of his sister, and relentlessly pursues the invaders to rescue his sister. Standing in his way is Jyu Shin-ta (Ryu Seung-ryong), a methodical, cold-blooded killer who is the head of an elite squad of Qing Dynasty troops. They pursue each other by proxy as Shin-ta follows Nam-Yi’s trail of fallen Manchu soldiers. This is superior action filmmaking in every sense, with camerawork as swift as the arrows that soar throughout, and an uncomplicated, primal heroes-and-villains story rendered with plain and direct, yet incredibly elegant freshness.

Vulgaria (Pang Ho-cheung)

Hong Kong director Pang is often at his best in bawdy comedy mode (Men Suddenly In Black, AV), and his latest film Vulgaria, NYAFF’s opening night film, finds him firing on all cylinders. Based, according to its director, on actual incidents in the Hong Kong film industry, Pang has made an incredibly filthy movie that achieves its perversity solely through dialog, without a trace of nudity … without human nudity, anyway. In this sense, you could see Pang as Hong Kong’s answer to Kevin Smith, except with actual filmmaking talent. Framed as the recollections of an opportunistic, scruples-free producer (Chapman To) spinning true-life tales in front of a class of film students, Vulgaria’s jokes and gags come fast and furious, and they all hit their targets. A certain level of familiarity with the Hong Kong film industry, especially its Category III sex-and-violence sector, will be required to get all the jokes. (It especially helps if you’ve seen the recent HK softcore saga 3D Sex and Zen: Extreme Ecstasy, whose star Hiro Hayama here plays himself). All the actors are game, and acquit themselves with riveting energy and verve, as they navigate this world of triad investors, product placement, extreme cuisine, and as the hilarious cherry on top, drunken bestiality (perhaps Clerks 2 was an inspiration here?). Among Vulgaria’s many delightful qualities is a fantastic breakout performance by Dada Chan as a model/aspiring actress/video game designer named Popping Candy, so called because of her unique blow-job technique. She takes what in other hands would be a throwaway role and transforms it into a soulful one, and makes clear that there is a fierce intelligence behind her pulchritudinous beauty.

Boxer’s Omen (Kuei Chih-hung)

This bizarre (to put it very mildly) Shaw Brothers horror/fantasy production from 1983 has a thin sliver of a plot involving a man (Philip Ko) who travels to Thailand to get revenge against a kickboxer (Bolo Yeung) who killed his brother in the rung during a match. But this is where things get weird: he goes to a Buddhist temple to get help from the monks, and gets caught up in a good-and-evil battle spanning centuries. This is the type of movie the term “midnight movie” was custom made for. The extreme, gross-out imagery – a character consumes his own regurgitated food, which is regurgitated again and stuffed into a corpse’s mouth, which is then sewn into the skin of an alligator – only escalates, with ever scanter logic, with each minute of screen time. Bats, spiders, skulls with their brains made into soup, a writing zombie woman (emerging from an alligator corpse) who is later flayed and dissolved into maggots – all these and more, so much more, are thrown at us in a nearly sadistic assault on the senses. Add to that a couple of entirely gratuitous sex scenes, and you have the kind of what-the-fuck whatsit that you’ll only find at NYAFF.