The Arthouse Meets the Grindhouse at the New York Asian Film Festival

Now in its 17th year, the festival has become the premiere showcase for East and Southeast Asian cinema in North America.
Sean Gilman

Little Forest

The New York Asian Film Festival, now in its 17th year, has become the premiere showcase for East and Southeast Asian cinema in North America. From a modest selection of a mere eleven films in its first year (2002), the festival has grown in both size and scope: this year’s selection includes 58 films from across the continent, an eclectic mix of arthouse and grindhouse, a bold survey of popular and independent cinema from one of the most vibrant and exciting corners of the world. While most of the films are new, including several North American premieres, the festival includes some archival films, including mini-retrospectives on the work of directors Masato Harada and Dante Lam. Thanks to the magic of the Internet and online screeners, I was able to sample a handful of titles from this year’s NYAFF from my home, thousands of miles away from Lincoln Center. I focused primarily on the major centers of East Asian film production: Japan, South Korea, China, and Hong Kong, though the festival also showcases films from the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Taiwan. 

Starting with Japan, the highest profile title I saw was Hirokazu Kore-eda's The Third Murder. Kore-eda just a few weeks ago picked up the Palme d’Or for his most recent film, The Shoplifters, but the prolific director’s prior film has yet to open in the US. It has, however, been covered by the Notebook, so suffice it to say that it’s a bit of a change of pace for him (metaphorically speaking, all Kore-eda films play at the same languid, not quite minimalist pace), being a mystery film rather than the kind of family drama that has made him a staple of the US arthouse circuit. The twist is that the film isn’t so much an investigation into who committed the crime, as it is about why the perpetrator did it. It’s a professional bit of work, befitting Kore-eda’s status as the Ron Howard of the international festival circuit, but ultimately it shies away from the darkest potential of its material, the utter meaninglessness of justice, retreating into a cocoon of tasteful self-seriousness.  

Much more interesting are a pair of films by Masato Harada, 1995’s Kamikaze Taxi and his latest, 2017’s Sekigahara (a third Harada film, 2016’s Kakekomi, is also playing the festival, but I haven’t seen it yet). The former is a loose and digressive yakuza film, one that takes the basic features of the genre (explicit violence and sex in a nihilistic revenge quest against all the corruption and injustice of the world) and uses it as a vehicle to explore unexamined fissures in Japanese society. Specifically shining a light on the plight of Japanese who have returned to the home country after a generation or two in South America (Peru and Brazil being the most common destinations for this Japanese diaspora). Kōji Yakusho plays just such an immigrant, returned home from Peru after 30 years and now driving a taxi. He picks up a young yakuza (Tatsuo, played by Kazuya Takahashi) who, in the film’s first hour, has seen his girlfriend murdered by his boss after she protested that a senator they procured a prostitute for beat the girl severely. Tatsuo and his buddies rob the senator, but are quickly found out and only Tatsuo escapes. He hires the taxi to drive him around on his various tasks: revenge of course, but also side trips to his mother’s grave and a relaxing visit to a spa (a remarkable sequence which recalls, of all things, Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s Happy Hour). In its expansive vision of a complex world, one riven by fractures far deeper than the simple moral clarity of most exploitation films, along with its sprawling running time, Kamikaze Taxi resembles nothing so much as the Heaven’s Gate of yakuza pictures. 

Sekigahara is somewhat less innovative, but is still impressive. The story of the Battle of Sekigahara, which in 1600, with the victory of the warlord Ieyasu Tokugawa, essentially ended Japan’s Warring States period and unified the country under the social and political system which would govern it for the next 300 years. Harada devotes most of his attention to the lead-up to the battle, tracing the rivalry between Tokugawa (Kōji Yakusho again) and Ishida Mitsunari (Junichi Okada), the top advisor to the reining Toyotomi clan. Plainly seeing the power vacuum that will develop when the Toyotomi leader eventually dies, both Mitsunari and Tokugawa attempt to win favor with the various other clans. Harada impressively manages to bring clarity to the intrigues despite a bewildering array of generals and retainers. The machinations of the rulers are paralleled by the movements of various ninjas, acting as spies for the clans, in particular a young woman (Kasumi Arimura) whom Mitsunari rescues. The dual plotlines work in counterpoint, showing the effects of political maneuverings on both the upper and lower classes, but, as in John Woo’s Red Cliff (the recent film Sekigahara most resembles), grafting a romance onto historical events doesn’t really work. The battle itself is nicely done, gruesomely violent, thrilling, and tragic in the inevitability of betrayal that hovers over it all. As Harada presents it, the contest between Tokugawa and Mitsunari is one between realism and idealism, with Tokugawa the old soldier willing to do anything necessary to achieve and maintain power, while the technocratic Mitsunari is convinced that his own belief in justice and righteousness is alone enough to win allies to his cause and earn him the victory.

1987: When the Day Comes

A similar dynamic informs the biggest South Korean film at the festival, 1987: When the Day Comes, directed by Jang Joon-hwan and starring Kim Yoonseok as the head of the country’s anti-communist police force, a kind of blend of J. Edgar Hoover and Lavrentiy Beria. A college student dies under torture by Kim’s minions, sparking a chain reaction that leads to the ultimate downfall of the South Korean dictatorship. Jang patiently follows each thread of the chain, starting with the prosecutor who refuses to sign off on cremating the boy’s body before an autopsy can be performed, through the doctor who leaks the real cause of death to the press, to the journalists who defy government orders and print the truth about the murder, to the young student activists who march in the streets demanding real democracy. It’s a stirring and invigorating film, a kind of Les misérables for our time, made all the more tragic by the realization that protests like this, where the government can be shamed by the truth about the deaths and abuses that occur under police custody to the point that actual, tangible change can occur, are all too rare a mere 30 years later.

Also of interest from South Korea are three much smaller films. Hit the Night is a ultra-low budget comedy about a director who has an idea for a movie she wants to make. As research, she interviews a slightly older man about love, sex, and relationships (not necessarily in that order). Slowly it is revealed that she actually has a crush on the man, and the interview is her excuse to get closer to him. The first hour of the film consists of their conversation, spread over two locations, the nature of which would be familiar to any fan of Hong Sang-soo (drinks, snacks, awkwardness). But rather than mere imitation, director and star Jeong Ga-young seems to be reimagining Hong for a new generation, one less hung-up on traditional ideas of gender roles, while still suffering the anxieties of romance and loneliness. In fact, more than the obvious touchstone Hong, the film reminded me most of Wong Kai-wai’s Happy Together, though in visual style Jeong couldn’t be more opposite Wong and Christopher Doyle’s maximalism. The push-pull nature of the two leads’ ultimately doomed relationship, and the film’s strange turn in its final third, where a second man is introduced, along with a coda seemingly inspired by Days of Being Wild, show that Jeong has something far more interesting in mind than merely updating her prestigious countryman. 

Microhabitat too takes a unique approach to relationships in modern Korea. Jeon Go-woon is much more polished in her style, the film has a warmth of color and fastidiousness of design very different from Jeong’s scrappy independence. Esom plays a woman in her late 20s who makes her living as a housekeeper. She works solely for the purpose of meeting three expenses: rent, cigarettes, and whiskey. When her rent goes up, rather than give up the other two, she takes off to surf the couches of her former college bandmates. Each stop shows a domestic desperation of a different kind, her old friends are now too obsessed with work, children, in-laws, divorce, and parents to be very much fun, and as Esom wends her way through them, an idea at least as old as Thoreau takes hold: a vision of a life of true independence, where the basic consumptive pleasures are the only place where true happiness can be found.  

The same truth is found in Little Forest, the second cinematic adaptation of a manga by Daisuke Igarashi, the previous one directed by Junichi Mori and released in two parts (totaling almost four hours) in 2014 and 2015. The Korean adaptation comes as a single film, directed by Yim Soon-rye and starring Kim Tae-ri (who also stars in 1987: When the Days Comes) and Moon So-ri. Much like Isao Takahata’s Only Yesterday, it’s about a young woman who, fed up with city life, moves to the country and works on a farm. There she reflects on her past and learns important lessons about life. The difference from Takahata comes from the fact that the farm is actually where she grew up, and her past is less about her own coming of age than about her coming to understand her mother, a kind of distant figure whom she never really got along with (shades here of Ann Hui’s Song of the Exile). The film is divided into chapters corresponding to each of the four seasons, as Kim spends a year in the country. Yim is especially attuned to the sounds and textures of nature, lovingly tracking the changing colors and temperatures just as Kim prepares special dishes out of the foods that go best with each season, all filmed in a lush Food Network style. It’s a ravishing film, and while it breaks absolutely no new ground, I have to admit it made me long for the countryside in a way no film ever has.

The most vibrant colors of the festival, though, come not from Korea but from Thailand, with a 35mm archival presentation of Wisit Sasanatieng’s Tears of the Black Tiger. Emerging at the dawn of the century in a Thai New Wave alongside Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Pen-Ek Ratanaruang, Sasanatieng has become largely a forgotten figure nowadays, it seems the international arthouse circuit had room for only one Thai director, and it chose Apichatpong. As far as I can tell, none of his subsequent films were ever commercially released in the US, and even Tears of the Black Tiger only got a limited release from Magnolia Pictures.1 Which is a shame, because the film is one of the true marvels of the 2000s, a kaleidoscope of pinks and greens, fake backdrops and Thai pop music. An homage to (and most definitely not a parody of) the Thai melodramas Sasanatieng grew up watching, it’s also informed by a whole history of all-caps cinema, from American musicals to Italian Westerns, Indian masala films and Hong Kong heroic bloodshed sagas. Tears of the Black Tiger, in its seriousness, confronts these passé cinematic forms on their own terms, without the veil of irony, and so captures the bleeding heart of expressive cinema in all its overwhelming, delirious glory. 

The Chinese-language sections of the NYAFF this year include some films I’ve written about here at the Notebook in recent months: The Bold, The Corrupt, and the Beautiful, from Taiwan, Wrath of Silence, from China, and The Empty Hands, from Hong Kong. Additionally, the program includes a tribute to director Dante Lam, whose most recent film, Operation Red Sea, was released here this past Lunar New Year. Along with that gritty war film, they’re playing Lam’s Unbeatable, a 2013 film about a ex-champ (Nick Cheung, in a terrific performance) who begins training an MMA fighter, and his 2008 Beast Stalker, a cop movie about the hunt for a kidnapped child. All three films demonstrate Lam at his best and worst. He’s one of contemporary Hong Kong’s preeminent directors of action, inventive and energetic in his approach to violence. His films are always at their best when they are procedurals, focused on movement and routine. He has a decided weakness for melodramatics, which works reasonably well in something like Unbeatable, which is a kind of compendium of fight movie clichés dating all the way back to Wallace Beery wrestling pictures. In Beast Stalker, Nick Cheung’s kidnapper is a force of pure will, his every emotion (and he has a lot of them) sublimated along with his moral conscience so that he can achieve his greater goals. Nicholas Tse’s cop, on the other hand, is wildly expressive, chewing every bit of scenery he comes across. This is probably due to the differing skill of the two actors, though given the film’s decidedly Griffithian ending, I wonder if I’m not giving Lam enough credit for the sophistication of his melodramatics. Perhaps he’s after something new in the male weepy genre, and simply abandoned it with the just-the-facts approach of Red Sea.

Decidedly not underplayed is Jonathan Li’s 2017 Hong Kong actioner The Brink, starring Zhang Jin as a cop willing to break all the rules to capture a Triad played by Shawn Yue. Hearkening back to the golden age of bad Hong Kong hair, Zhang sports a bleached look only slightly less ridiculous than the mop atop the head of his police captain, played by Gordon Lam Ka-tung. The film opens promisingly, with a wordless scene of destruction, Zhang laying pitiless waste to a gang of thugs, accidentally killing a cop in the process. From there it becomes much more tedious, the fight scenes the only spark in what, given the performers on-screen, should be a much better movie. Zhang, who began as a stuntman (famously doubling for Zhang Ziyi in the early 2000s), has yet to really break out as a star, though he absolutely stole the final third of SPL 2: A Time for Consequences (where he battled both Wu Jing and Tony Jaa), and this charmless role does little to help in in that regard. Yue, probably best known here as the romantic lead in Pang Ho-chung’s Love in a  Puff series, is playing comically against type, his brooding nastiness comes across as mere slumming affectation. 

More pleasant, if ultimately just as empty, is Antony Chan’s House of the Rising Sons, an autobiographical biopic about The Wynners, one of the biggest Cantonese rock bands of the 1970s. For its first half, covering the formation of the first iteration of the band (“The Loosers”), the film is a bright, goofy romp, hitting the normal notes of teenage rebellion, with Simon Yam as the father of the band’s guitarist who is always complaining about the kids playing too darn loud. Confined mostly to a single block, this section of the film evokes the neighborhood charms of an older Hong Kong, one largely missing from contemporary cinema as real estate in the city has become prohibitively expensive. But once the original co-lead singer is replaced, and the band becomes hugely successful, the movie loses all specificity, falling back on lazy montages and rock star movie clichés. Its one thing to build a film around playing music as the only escape from a life of drudgery or petty criminality, it’s quite another to devote half a film to jealousy over the fact that Alan Tam and Kenny Bee are more popular than you are. Still, the movie is for the most part genial and bright, with some great music (including many versions of “The House of the Rising Sun,” the favorite song of the cutest girl in the boys’ high school) and a genuine warmth.  


Far colder is The Looming Storm, a brooding noir from first-time director Dong Yue set in 1997 in a Chinese industrial town where it rains literally all the time. It rains there like the people who made the TV series The Killing think it rains in Seattle: pounding, cold, and constant. Duan Yihong plays the head of security at one of the town’s factories. Celebrated by his coworkers, he fancies himself a real detective and so, when a series of murders take place around the town, he takes it upon himself to investigate. The police, overworked and bemused by his enthusiasm, let him play along, but as his investigation progresses, the depths of his obsession take a toll on those around him, his young assistant and his girlfriend. Buried under the film’s moody genre trappings is a commentary about the victims of modernization, about the delusions that fueled China’s industrial past and the wreckage it left along the way. But for the most part it plays as a bleak character study of one man’s obsession with crime, and the whims of fate and systems of power that have more hold on our lives than we’d care to admit.

Similarly obsessed with crime-solving is Louis Koo in Paradox, where he plays a father from Hong Kong searching for his kidnapped daughter in Thailand. Paradox is the third film in the SPL series,2 though in fine Hong Kong tradition none of the films are related in any way other than cast, crew, and theme (kind of). Wilson Yip directed the initial film in the series, back in 2005, and produced the second, which Soi Cheang directed. They switch roles here, with Cheang producing and Yip again directing. Koo and Tony Jaa return from the second film, though Jaa in a much reduced role. It’s Koo who takes center stage, giving an anguished performance that earned him some of the best notices of his career and his first film acting prizes (both the Asian and Hong Kong Film Awards for Best Actor). Even more impressive than his emotional intensity, however, is the fact that he actually looks like he can fight, a credit to his performance as well as the work of the film’s choreographer, Sammo Hung. Jaa gets only one real showcase sequence, but it’s among the wildest things Hung has designed in decades, a sprawling rooftop chase with a breathtaking climax. Most of the other fights are far less flamboyant, thanks to both the limitations of Koo’s athleticism and Yip’s preferred combat style. Working for years with Donnie Yen (who starred with Sammo in the first SPL), Yip explored brutal, close quarters fighting in films like the MMA-influenced Flash Point and the Wing Chun brawling of his three films about Ip Man. Paradox too is more concerned with the gut-wrenching results of physical violence than the beauty of the human form in motion, and the film wears Koo down by attrition, physically and psychologically. For more than a decade now, there has been an undercurrent in the prolific Koo’s films, a seeming obsession with dismantling the former model physically3, this reaches its fullest expression in Paradox, where he is ground down, fight after fight, by greed and injustice and his all-consuming need for revenge (and the fists and feet of other, much larger men). As the film’s ultimate villain, Gordon Lam is exactly his opposite: cool, precise, emotionless, an instrument of power ruthless and efficient (and polar opposite to Lam’s performance in The Brink). Expertly balancing hot and cold, brutality and beauty, raw emotion and sophisticated intelligence, Paradox was the finest action film to be released in 2017. For some reason, it isn’t getting a theatrical release in the US, but is instead being released straight to video. This year’s NYAFF might be the last time it plays in an actual movie theatre.

1. After it had been recut and shelved for years by Miramax, the Magnolia release was the real version, though as recently as 2013 the Miramax cut was the one streaming on Netflix.

2. The branding on this isn’t exactly clear. It was initially announced as SPL 3, and it appeared to have the characters for “Sha Po Lang 3” on-screen in the version I saw, but all of the official English language material refers to it solely as “Paradox”.

3. As in the Overheard series, in every film of which he’s maimed in some horrible way, or in his Johnnie To comedies like Don’t Go Breaking My Heart or Love for All Seasons, where his body spontaneously misfires or the second SPL, where his need for organ “donation” drives the plot.

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NYAFFNYAFF 2018Festival CoverageHirokazu Kore-edaMasato HaradaJang Joon-hwanJeong Ga-youngJeon Go-woonYim Soon-ryeWisit SasanatiengDante LamJonathan LiAntony ChanWilson Yip
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