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High Kicks, Sad Sacks, and Magic Snakes: The New York Asian Film Festival

The 18th edition of the film festival that is the premier showcase for Asian film in North America.
Sean Gilman
Iron Monkey
The 18th New York Asian Film Festival kicks off this weekend with another eclectic roundup of films from East and Southeast Asia. The premier showcase for Asian film in North America, the NYAFF focuses on the three main production centers, Japan, China/Hong Kong/Taiwan, and Korea, while also showcasing films from the Philippines, Vietnam, and Malaysia. Most of the films are new releases, by a healthy mix of heretofore unknown filmmakers and established auteurs, and they range from international festival-type art-house films to glossy genre pictures. This year features as well a number of films that have already seen release in North American multiplexes, albeit in limited runs in major cities. This could either be a by-product of the increasing number, variety, and quality of such releases, or a result of the increasingly opaque and throttling censorship situation in Mainland China.  
The festival begins on the same day that Derek Tsang’s Better Days, the follow-up to his excellent and highly-acclaimed 2017 debut Soul Mate, was to have been released both in China and in North America. But on Monday it was announced that the film’s release has been cancelled (“post-poned”), just as its appearance at this year’s Berlin Film Festival had been canceled. At the same time, the film that was to open the Shanghai Film Festival, a much-anticipated World War II epic called The Eight Hundred (by Mr. Six director Guan Hu), had its release canceled as well. Strange things are afoot in Chinese cinema, and it is looking increasingly like the last few years may have been an aberration, a minor and now ended Golden Age when all variety of mainstream Chinese films were released simultaneously at home and the West while the country’s more esoteric filmmakers were becoming increasingly dominant on the international art house circuit (as 2018, where Ash is Purest White and Long Day’s Journey Into Night drew raves). Or official state policy could shift again in the coming months. I wouldn’t to dare predict the actions of the Chinese Communist Party.  
This is my third year covering the NYAFF, and while there was only one previously released film in last year’s lineup, there were, by my count, four in 2017 (not counting films related to individuals being honored by the festival), which is about the same number as this year. So maybe it’s just a coincidence, maybe last year was the oddball. Regardless, this year’s lineup has plenty of gems, headlined by a trio of films by this year’s Star Asia Lifetime Achievement Award winner, Yuen Woo-ping. 
One of the three films in the Yuen tribute is his latest, Master Z: Ip Man Legacy, which I covered here just a few months ago. The other two are older films, arguably his two best. I wrote about 1982’s The Miracle Fighters here last year, when Yuen and Tsui Hark were supposed to have remade it as The Thousand Faces of Dunjia (in fact that film is nothing like the “original”). It’s the best showcase for Yuen and his brothers’ vaudevillian approach to martial arts acrobatics. With a bottomless well of practical stunts and special effects, I continue to believe it’s the closest thing we’ve yet seen to a Jean Cocteau kung fu movie. The third Yuen film is a 35mm presentation of Iron Monkey, among the finest films of 1993, the high-water mark year in what was the last true peak of martial arts cinema.
Spinning off the success of Tsui Hark’s Once Upon a Time in China series (on which Yuen worked as an action coordinator), in which Jet Li played real-life folk hero Wong Fei-Hung as he battled the forces of Western Imperialism and Eastern Superstition as a kind of avatar of Sun Yat-sen style rational nationalism, Iron Monkey serves as a prequel. We meet Wong as a child, played by thirteen-year-old wushu champion Angie Tsang, as he and his father, Wong Kei-ying, played by Donnie Yen, visit a town and become embroiled in what is essentially the plot of an old Zorro episode. A masked bandit named Iron Monkey is stealing from the corrupt ministers and gangsters who rule the town and distributing the loot to the poor and needy. The Wongs get caught up in the government crackdown (because Kei-ying can fight he’s considered a potential Iron Monkey) while befriending the local doctor (Yu Rongguang), who is in fact the eponymous hero. Brisk and tightly plotted, with tons of great fights and just the right amount of humor and melodrama, Iron Monkey is Yuen’s most accomplished film. It is the one where his cavalier disregard for coherence in acting and plotting is least felt, along with two other films he made right around the same time, 1993’s The Tai Chi Master, with Jet Li, and 1994’s Wing Chun, with Michelle Yeoh. Iron Monkey was eventually released in the early 2000s by Miramax, in an attempt to capitalize on the success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (which Yuen had choreographed). But in doing so they edited it for tone and speed to fit more conventional American ideas of “realism,” altered the subtitles to depoliticize it, and re-recorded the score to match the style of Tan Dun’s Crouching Tiger music, in the process eliminating Iron Monkey’s use of the iconic Wong Fei-hung theme, divorcing the film from its intended context as part of a larger heroic story. Here’s hoping the print the NYAFF will be showing is of the original release and not the Miramaxed butchering.
See You Tomorrow
Not quite an archival presentation, but not really a new film either, the NYAFF is playing See You Tomorrow, the film co-written and produced by Wong Kar-wai that was originally released around Christmas in 2016. Based on a story by Zhang Jiajia, who also directed, Tony Leung Chiu-wai plays a Ferryman, basically a bartender who helps people get over their romantic disasters. Strongly reminiscent of the structure of Wong’s own My Blueberry Nights, the film follows three primary characters in their struggles to resolve issues from their past (key events from which all occurred ten years prior). Leung has lost himself in drink for years, and although he was in love once, it has ended for some reason. His friend, played by Leung’s Chungking Express co-star Takeshi Kaneshiro, is in love with the baker next door who has amnesia: not only has she forgotten him, she’s forgotten how to cook. Their neighbor, a radio DJ played by Angelababy, moons over a broken-down pop singer (Eason Chan) who is himself suffering through a disastrous break-up. Wong and Zhang hide the conventionality of the screenplay behind a lot of whiz-bang filmmaking: garish colors, goofy slapstick and superhuman alcohol consumption. In individual moments, the film looks fantastic (the cinematography is by Peter Pau, who shot Crouching Tiger and helped shoot The Killer and The Bride with White Hair, and Cao Yu, who won cinematography Golden Horse Awards for both City of Life and Death and Kekexili: Mountain Patrol), but after two hours it all blends together in a lurid blur of orange. See You Tomorrow is in fact probably the orangest movie ever made. The stars make it watchable though, I can’t imagine a truly unpleasant Tony Leung experience— even if watching him and Kaneshiro goof around being guys while mooning over gorgeous women half their age is a bit trying. 
Somewhat surprisingly, White Snake is even more impressive looking than See You Tomorrow. Chinese animation hasn’t accomplished much of note in recent years, though their mainstream blockbusters have grown increasingly cartoonish as cheap CGI has become widely available. Occasionally this has yielded good results (Tsui Hark’s Journey to the West: Demons Strike Back and Detective Dee and the Four Heavenly Kings, Soi Cheang’s Monkey King series), but more often the effects are as bland and frictionless as the movies they are meant to embellish. White Snake though, being fully a cartoon, shows as much imagination in the creation of stunning vistas and romantic moments as anything to have come out of China in recent years, certainly more than any of the Hollywood animated films my kids have dragged me to recently. 
It’s a kind of prequel to the White Snake legend, which is probably best known to Western audiences as the source story for Tsui Hark’s Green Snake. But where Tsui used the story as a means to critique religious hypocrisy and human selfishness, directors Amp Wong and Ji Zhao play it straight, fitting it into a kind of Disneyfied princess on the run story. In fact, aside from showing a bit too much skin and having a decided lack of songs, White Snake might as well be a Disney product. There’s even a talking dog used as comic relief. Recalling the world of the Monster Hunt movies, White Snake features a war between the world of demons and the world of humans, where one of the Emperor’s chief ministers is hunting demons (snake demons specifically) in order to enhance his own dark magical powers (in order to win favor with said Emperor). The White Snake loses her memory in an assassination attempt on this minister, and is rescued by a human who, naturally enough, falls in love with her and helps her on her quest to regain her memory and kill the bad guys. It’s standard fairy tale romance stuff, but done with enough verve and belief that old clichés can be forgiven. It’s not Tsui Hark, but it might be a kids version of House of Flying Daggers.
The Crossing
The best of the new Chinese language films I’ve seen from this year’s festival though is The Crossing, the debut feature by Bai Xue. A 16 year old high school student named Peipei (Huang Yao) goes to school in Hong Kong but lives across the border in Shenzhen. Trying to earn money to go to Japan with her best friend, she hooks up with a gang of iPhone smugglers, her dual ID and regular border crossing making her an ideal courier. A slow-burning character study, Bai takes her time establishing Peipei’s world, teasing out the complications of her home life and family history, building her sense of isolation from her parents and her wealthier peers, such that her bad decisions (like joining a criminal gang) seem almost a reasonable escape. Peipei joins Bad Genius’s rebel test-taking cheat and Angels Wear White’s reluctant witness as fascinating young women striking out at conventional society with cool, calculating dispassion. The Crossing looks terrific, with crisp scenes of urban nightscapes recalling the glory days of Hong Kong cinema. It’s a 21st century School on Fire: all the issues are the same, but the fire is all sublimated now, burning under the surface of a relatively prosperous normalcy.
The Crossing is one of the NYAFF films which saw a North American release earlier this year, though I missed it when it played a few months ago. A couple others I’ve written about here and elsewhere. Pang Ho-cheung’s Missbehavior, an urban comedy that was one of the highlights of this year’s New Year’s slate returns, along with Savage, a thriller set in a snowy wilderness that isn’t particularly good at all. The Vietnamese film Furie, though, is probably the best action film of the year so far (apologies to John Wick fans). Its star, Veronica Ngô, will be at the festival to receive the Daniel A. Craft Award for Excellence in Action Cinema and it is well-deserved. Her performance as a woman relentlessly chasing after the traffickers who kidnapped her daughter is a star-making one if ever there was, and her fights, filmed with precision and creativity by director Lê Văn Kiệt, are excellent. It’s put Vietnam on the map as an exciting new territory for action cinema, as Tony Jaa’s Ong-Bak did for Thailand and Iko Uwais and Yayan Ruhian did for Indonesia with The Raid.
But that’s not all we’ve seen from Vietnamese cinema this year. While Furie became the first Vietnamese film to get distribution in the U.S. (depending on how you classify the films of Trần Anh Hùng), The Third Wife, by Ash Mayfair, will be making its way around the art house circuit this summer after appearing at a number of film festivals over the past year. The NYAFF also has Song Lang (aka The Tap Box), from director Leon Le. A melancholy drama about a debt collector who strikes up a friendship with a cai luong performer, it’s long on  atmosphere of the lush, Wongian variety. The performance scenes are the main draw, cai luong being a kind of early 20th century Vietnamese folk opera, kind of like the Chinese huangmei operas familiar from the films of Li Han-hsiang, though markedly more Western in singing style. If the relationship between the two men (on the surface at least wholly Platonic) hints at Farewell, My Concubine, the way the film flits breathlessly between hard-boiled gangster life and lush romanticism recalls Johnnie To’s The Odd One Dies or Pen-Ek Ratanaruang’s Last Life in the Universe. It’s also the only film I know of where romance is stirred by playing Contra (though it should be noted that King of Fighters is central to one of See You Tomorrow’s romances). 
Finally, I caught three films from Japan. Mr. Long, the 2017 film from mononymous director Sabu was one of the low-key gems from that year’s Seattle International Film Festival and is playing at this year’s NYAFF alongside Sabu’s 2018 film Jam (Sabu himself will be in town for the festival). Mr. Long is the significantly better work. Chang Chen plays a Taiwanese gangster who gets double-crossed in Japan and holes up in a run-down neighborhood. There he eventually befriends some locals with his exceptional noodle-making skills and general coolness, and a kind of makeshift community forms around him. It’s basically an off-beat yakuza-and-ramen riff on The Outlaw Josey Wales, helped immensely by Chang’s charisma, evident even when playing a deadpan menace. The rest of the performances are less inspired, and a flashback that needlessly interconnects some key characters seems especially out of place.
But that kind of interconnection is the whole point of Jam, one of those movies that starts with a seemingly inexplicable event and then cuts back to a few days before to follow all the individual plot strands as they come together in wildly improbable fashion that might mean something, depending on how you value the metaphysics of coincidence. The three men at the center of Jam include: an enka singer (enka is a kind of love balladry that seems quite indistinguishable from lounge singing to my ears) whose audience consists entirely of middle-aged women, one of whom is a nut who kidnaps him Misery-style; an ex-con who never talks and who is hell-bent on tracking down all his old comrades and wailing on them with a hammer while also pushing his aged mother across town in a wheelchair; and a nice young man who is told by a spirit that if he does three good deeds a day for a certain amount of time, his girlfriend (in a coma since she was shot) will wake up. All three guys are weighed down by the women in their lives, and only the wackiest of chance encounters will bring them any hope of escape. It’s occasionally funny and the plotting is undeniably competent, if uninspired, but the whole thing leaves an unpleasant taste. It’s just a worse version of a story we’ve seen too many times before. 
Nobuhiro Yamashita is now almost fifteen years removed from Linda Linda Linda, doubtless the greatest high school film of the century thus far. He remains a regular on the festival circuit, though none of his recent movies have generated anything like the excitement of that masterwork. I’ve seen three of his last four films,  La La La at Rock Bottom, Over the Fence, and this year’s NYAFF entry Hard-Core, and all are about sad sack men who don’t properly know how to deal with the worlds in which they find themselves. And each one has been worse than the one before it. La La La was saved, as its hero is, by music, while Over the Fence found escape in carpentry, baseball, and a terrific pair of performances from Joe Odagiri and Yû Aoi. But Hard-Core is simply lost in itself, its collection of losers as charmless and uninteresting as the film’s forced whimsicality. Takayuki Yamada plays the lead, a lonely and honest man who is so certain of his own righteousness that he can only react with violence when others fail to meet his standards. The film’s opening moments are its best, with Yamada drinking in a bar being proud of himself for not hitting on the only woman there, then exploding into rage when another group comes in and enlists her in their drunken revelry. From there it descends into the maudlin and dull, as Yamada and his best friend join an old man digging for treasure and find a robot. They all hang out together looking sad and try to deal with the corruption of their bosses and Yamada’s businessman brother, but our world ultimately proves too impure for them. The longer I’ve sat with it, the less I’ve liked it, whereas every other Yamashita movie has grown on me with time.  
This is only a brief sample of this year’s NYAFF. There were a number of movies I simply haven’t had time to catch up with yet, foremost among them is probably Peema Tseden’s Jinpa, which, like his 2015 film Tharlo, is I’m sure a very fine film that I just haven’t made the time to see. I was also curious about a couple of genre films: Dare to Stop Us, a Japanese comedy about a woman director working in the world of Koji Wakamatsu pink films; and The Fatal Raid, what appears to be a throwback to that most Hong Kong of genres, the Girls with Guns action film, from director Jacky Lee. There’s a lot more out there besides. See ‘em while you can.


Festival CoverageNYAFFNYAFF 2019Yuen Woo-pingZhang JiajiaWong Kar-waiAmp WongJi ZhaoLê Văn KiệtLeon LeSabuNobuhiro Yamashita
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