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Asian Film Festivals, “Strange Powers” and “Wanda”

"As the seventh annual South Asian International Film Festival makes plain, a new wave of independent films is out there, eager to bust taboos, sexual and otherwise," writes Rachel Saltz in the New York Times. Besides the dramatic competition, the festival also features "a shorts competition and something called Spectrum, which includes releases from the outskirts of Bollywood and beyond, and not incidentally, contains the charmers of the group. With 16 features and five shorts in all, mostly from India — but also from Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh — the festival gives a good sense of the variety, abundance and liveliness of South Asian film."

Todd Brown at Twitch on the film that's attracted the most attention so far (image above; and here's the trailer): "Bold, energetic and by turns both deliberately vulgar and sharply incisive, Kolkata based director Q is sure to turn heads with Gandu — a film that straddles a heretofore unnoticed line between Danny Boyle's Trainspotting and Gaspar Noé's Enter The Void. If nothing else Gandu makes on thing very, very clear: should he have the inclination and backing to do so Q could very easily become India's answer to Gaspar Noé."

"The film follows the travails of would-be rapper and young punk Gandu ["Asshole"], who takes the titular insult everyone hurls at him and proudly uses it for his name," explains Simon Abrams, blogging for the New York Press. "Full of double and triple exposures and gorgeous black-and-white photography that recalls the music videos and photography of Anton Corbijn, Asshole is basically a rap musical about a kid who shows his love for his squalid life by railing at it."

Back to Rachel Saltz: "Credits roll. But the film isn't over. It starts again, and delivers its coup de grâce: an extended, graphic sex scene that simply has no counterpart in Indian cinema, whose idea of raciness used to be to wet, clinging saris. Dear Q, you have succeeded — I was shocked, though your movie left me cold: too much attitude."

Charles Webb at Twitch on the film opening the festival tonight (SAIFF runs through Tuesday): "That Girl in Yellow Boots is a lot of things: a mystery about a girl's search for her missing father; a drama about one young woman's seemingly casual passage through the Indian sex trade; it's also a thriller about clueless drug dealers leaning on a young foreigner. The problem is that all of those thing are happening to one character, Ruth (Kalki Koechlin's), who is at once naive, knowing, shred, manipulated, manipulative, cold, and caring. The screenplay — co-written by Ms Koechilin and director Anurag Kashyap — heaps so many conflicting traits on Ruth that she becomes hard to recognize from scene to scene, ultimately making her journey feel like it's happening to several different characters."

There are two more days left for the San Diego Asian Film Festival and Glenn Heath Jr has been sending dispatches into the House Next Door: "From its opening-night selection of Andrew Lau's epic period piece Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen, one can only glean that the SDAFF programmers wanted to give their target audience exactly what they want. Starring the always-flexible Donnie Yen, Legend of the Fist delivers a roundhouse kick to Chinese historiography, contextualizing the Japanese invasion and occupation of Hong Kong through the melodramatic lens of high-powered revenge and seedy deception.... Ideologically, Legend of the Fist never flinches from positioning China and its people as ambitious guerillas fighting an uncaring, unflinching Japanese monster. This Chinese empowerment against other Asian political systems, as well as the British colonialists who are always portrayed as ignorant buffoons, gives much of the film a fascinatingly concise political slant."

Also: Teddy Chan's "exciting kung fu epic" Bodyguards and Assassins ("Instead of simply relying on high-flying martial arts and action set pieces, Chan shows an interest in character ambiguity from the very beginning"), Helie Lee's Macho Like Me ("What starts out as a critique of male-gender advantages soon turns into an unexpected personal enlightenment for this female filmmaker") and: "[N]o matter your level of fan-boy enthusiasm, it's hard to defend such a reductive and defective piece of low-budget trash like [Seiji Chiba's] Alien vs Ninja."

And: "Lu Chuan's City of Life and Death, a black-and-white nightmare about the notorious Rape of Nanking by the invading Japanese army in 1938, communicates the impact of both overt atrocities and interior heartbreaks entirely through facial expressions, specifically via the eyes of each main character." It's "a film concerned with the moments before and after traumatic events." Meantime, "71: Into the Fire is propaganda at its finest, classically depicting the sacrifice of valiant youth for the greater national good. Directed by John H Lee, the film tells the story of a the South Korean student soldier platoon who defended a key position from the advancing North Korean army during the early days of the Korean War.... Stylistically, the film is greatly influenced by its Korean blood brother Tae Guk Gi, as every frame within the bookend battle sequences explodes fragments and limbs from all angles."

"The missing link between Cole Porter and college rock, Stephin Merritt could be the only singer-songwriter to integrate Tin Pan Alley–worthy tunesmithing into lo-fi music, largely under the moniker the Magnetic Fields." David Fear in Time Out New York: "His indie-pop ditties, full of melancholy and gay-bar wit, are tailor-made for bruised romantics with high IQs and low self-esteem. This much the unconverted will glean from Kerthy Fix and Gail O'Hara's portrait," Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields. "Anyone who views these facts as self-evident, however, will walk away wondering what this mess of a music doc thinks it's accomplishing."

"Made by fans, presumably intended for the same, it summarizes the Magnetic Fields's career through 10 years of filmed footage, placing apartment recording sessions and intimate interviews among the scraps of a loose, meandering narrative," writes Jesse Cataldo in Slant. "Questions of significance and genius are handled, but the result is less an appeal to new listeners than a refresher for existing ones, a predictable outcome for a treatment of such a small, selective topic. Yet as far as these type of things go, Strange Powers is generally enjoyable."

"A notoriously difficult interview, the singer-songwriter is prone to epic pauses and blank stares," writes Eric Hynes in the Voice, "and even his shyness can come across as condescension, which makes him a rough subject for a documentary profile. Yet that dissonance is also what makes Strange Powers... so intriguing."

"Strange Powers, which surveys Mr Merritt's career and captures his uneasy relationship with fame (he wants it, but doesn't want to be seen wanting it), sometimes feels like a cross between a standard rock biography and Grey Gardens," suggests Mike Hale in the NYT. For Stephanie Zackarek at Movieline, this is "a relaxed, enjoyable little documentary whose central figure emerges as a figure rendered in half-precise, half-diffuse pointillist dots: By the end, he's more charming and less self-serious than he seemed at the beginning, but he still escapes with much of his mystery intact."

More from Mark Asch (L), Cullen Gallagher (Hammer to Nail) and Dana Stevens (Slate). Interviews with Merritt: Lizzy Goodman (Vulture) and Brandon Kim (IFC).

Melissa Anderson in the Voice: "Wanda — about the desultory existence of a woman from deepest Pennsylvania coal country who abandons her husband and small children, soon taking up with an incompetent bank robber — was the only movie [Barbara] Loden, who died of cancer in 1980 at age 48, ever made. Screening at MOMA [this evening] as part of its To Save and Project film preservation series (and introduced by Sofia Coppola, among others), Wanda is the singular vision of an artist who hailed from surroundings as bleak and limited as her title character's." See, too, the September 2 roundup.

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