The most exciting film festival each year in New York is neither the prestigious New York Film Festival nor the Tribeca behemoth that explodes every May. Each summer, Asian cinema in all shapes and forms invades the downtown area thanks to Subway Cinema's New York Asian Film Festival. A heady and potent hodgepodge of genre schlock, genre purity, blockbuster mainstream, art-house eccentricity, and flat out unclassifiable insanity (see last year's Funky Forest), one will rarely see such an invigorating mixture of contemporary cinema playing in New York at any other time.
Highlights must be based on three things: auteurship, genre, or descriptive appeal. For the latter one must go to the film festival's site to read some of the stranger descriptions (try Dainipponjin a.k.a. Big Man Japan, for example). For genre, action and melodrama have always had strong showings at the festival, and perhaps most intriguing in this year's line up is the Chinese film Assembly. Falling under the aesthetic influence of Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, it should be fascinating to see what a blockbuster, WWII-era film (which is set in 1948 during the Chinese civil war) from mainland China should look like.
Perhaps one of East Asian cinema's strongest appeal is its old-school mixture of auteurs and genres, so it is hard to speak of action films without talking about Johnnie To's sublime musical-pickpocket film, Sparrow (the festival is also playing To's recent collaboration with Wai Ka-Fai, Mad Detective), or Miike Takeshi's Japanese Western, the title-sells-the-film spectacular, Sukiyaki Western Django. For viewers wishing to push into the more undiscovered reaches of new Asian genre auteurs, try the new Cheang Pou-soi film, Shamo. Cheang's last film, Dog Bite Dog, played at last year's NYAFF and was a ferocious, undeniably exciting discovery.
But have no fear if you want to only tread the waters of the art-house, as this festival seems to supply any kind of film that a cinephile could desire. Finally a Aoyama Shinji film shows up on these shores, a rarity despite the success of his 2000 film Eureka, but perhaps not so surprisingly considering his new film, Sad Vacation, is a kind of quasi-sequel to that movie. The real coup of the festival though is having the guts to screen Wakamatsu Koji's grueling, three-hour masterpiece United Red Army. A mad combination of documentary, docu-drama, chamber psycho-drama, political history, and ideological investigation, its inspired, truly dedicated hybridity is perhaps the best showcase for the kind of utterly necessary cinema that the NYAFF brings to the city.
Below you can find reviews for Sparrow and United Red Army, which previously screened at the 2008 Berlin Film Festival, and will be playing in New York thanks to Subway Cinema.Sparrow (To, China)
"The pleasures of Johnnie To begin on a purely formal level. Long lenses flattening the shot, a camera on tracks to elaborate tension and movement, those fabulous widescreen tableaux of To’s characters variously lined in the frame, the moving camera well zoomed in—To’s characters travel on very thin, narrow trajectories, slight oblique angles almost but not quite flush against the background. The look to this subtle angular movement in the compositional flatness makes cinematic lines, and the lines can be quite elegant, the more so when one can cut, move, and block as fluently as this master. Nowhere is this pleasure in graceful, subtly intersecting lines more evident than when To is having fun. And he is clearly have just that in his new, and utterly delightful film, Sparrow..."
***United Red Army (Wakamatsu, Japan) "Somehow it is only the cinema of duration, of dragging out the minutes and the tedium for those in the film as well as those in the audience, that can wrest out a particular sense of dismay, catastrophe in-progress, fruitlessness, and wherewithal. In a spirit of sustained mood and obsession in a vein similar to that of Satantango and Out: 1, longer movies that don’t feel much longer, Wakamatsu Koji’s United Red Army picks its moment—the mountain retreats and eventual cabin siege of the eponymous radical militant leftist student group in the winter of ‘71/’72—and hits the same notes, the same brutal actions again and again, with tremendous results..."