Opening today and running through July 5th is the New York Asian Film Festival, and the benefit this cinephile summer tentpole gives to the city’s film scene can be seen in two of its hardest hitting selections: Wai Ka-fai’s Written By and Yang Ik-joon’s Breathless. As befits a regional cinema whose foreign audiences, at least in the US, publicly trends to fanboyism, these movies illustrate an audacity rare amongst higher profile or more prestigious film festivals. Yet, audacity is not an end in and of itself, and the differences between Wai and Yang’s daring are also illustrative of the pleasures and the problems of this kind of cinema.
Written By is audacious on a conceptual level. Wai Ka-fai—who often writes for Johnnie To (including To’s most recent film, Vengeance) and has co-directed several films with him—is the wild, melodramatic yin to To’s self-serious, somber yang. Let alone to his own devices, Wai’s films attain a walloping pitch of insanity on the level of story that is kept alive through equally brazen stylistics, ground hugging wide angle camera movements and cranes every which way. The strange surprise is that while To is serious and Wai is mad, Wai’s preference for the insane reaches in and pulls some genuine emotional and dramatic (though not psychological) sincerity from his films. Wai may be the true believer in melodrama, despite the wackiness of his subjects and his Milkyway Image fraternal twin To’s preference for grim masculine turmoil.
Wai’s latest, which opens the festival, is a profound example. A girl blinded in a car accident that kills her father tries to get over her grief by penning a novel where it was her father who was blinded while she, her mother, and brother died—prompting him (fictional) to pen a novel where he is visited by the ghosts of his dead family, but who only remain in the real (fictional) world if the father pretends they are still dead. Suffice to say, this is all in the first thirty minutes of the film, which proceeds to fold several of these fictional and non-fictional, dead and undead, seeing and unseeing layers together into a tear-filled swathe of deaths, afterworlds, suicides, present and past versions of self, and quite a bit of weepy and hilarious use of blind heroes and heroines. Wai wins the fight against total irreverence by never letting go of his conceptual premise; this meta-meta-meta-melodrama isn’t the opening reel gimmick that pulls you in, it is the inventive, off-the-wall but always emotionally justified energy that propels the film along.
The South Korean Tiger Award winner at Rotterdam this year, Breathless is a direct flip to Written By, a film audacious only in its brutality, its conceptual simplicity. You don’t believe a single physical occurrence in Wai’s film, but you do every single punch of Breathless. Yang Ik-joon is not just the writer and director, but the star too, playing a petty gangster who swears up a storm and beats people into the ground not just for money but for looking at him wrong, for being his father, for any old reason whatsoever. Breathless rides this initial wave of no-nonsense viciousness with a freshness that comes entirely from Yang’s unadorned mise-en-scene; the guy could be directing a Hong Sang-soo movie or episode of a television series as far as the cinematics is concerned, and it is this sense of limitation in the evocation of the film world that seems to prompt the repetitive beat downs and constant verbal berating.
When Yang comes across a female high school student (Kim Gol-bi) who is as hard-bitten as he is, the film rapidly gets a second wind, suggesting the kind of down-and-out romances of the 1930s where the streets makes both girls and boys feisty, defensive, violent, and suspicious—and absolutely passionate and heartfelt. But then character arcs start to pop up, and we see the main difference between Breathless and Written By, that Wai’s film refuses to compromise it’s initial energy and invention, and builds off of it, whereas Yang feels the need to curtail and justify the harsh contents of his film with the hoariest of social messages about the cyclical nature of violence and its roots in ones upbringing and surroundings. Wai’s message comes after we watch our heroine commit suicide twice, ever unsure which is fictional and which is real; Yang’s comes after his hero finally gets his ass kicked, oh how ironic.
Follow through is the real lesson of these films, and at over two hours Breathless is nothing but a trawl simply because Yang cannot translate one kind of energy into another. Written By gallops ever-onward, like a camera crane that just going up and up, unrestricted by gravity and eventually unrestricted by the crane itself. Which of these kinds of audacity the rest of the festival will bring us we'll have to wait to see, but considering that they are playing the much hyped four-hour Love Exposure, and a re-cut version of Yu Lik-wai's digitally global Plastic City, city dwellers looking for a little craziness should be in for a treat.