"By now a programming institution in its eighth hyperactive annual episode, the New York Asian Film Festival is one of American film culture's most invaluable resources," writes Michael Atkinson in the Voice, "a Silk Road to Asian pop reflexes that are usually considered too culturally specific to sell to Western eyes. Of course, that marketing supposition has been proven wrong over and over again, in large part thanks to the fest. The Korean New Wave (from Park Chan-wook's bloody valentines to Hong Sang-soo's romantic subversions) got its Stateside start here, as did directors Ryuichi Hiroki (Vibrator), Katsuhito Ishii (A Taste of Tea), the first post-Ring floods of J-horror and K-horror, the reincarnation of Japanese master Seijun Suzuki, and the remake-ready Infernal Affairs cycle (which became The Departed)." Capsule previews of seven of the films lined up for this year's edition follow.
The NYAFF "has grown to 45 films and moved to the uptown precincts of Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater," notes Mike Hale in his overview for the New York Times, and it "officially opens Friday night with the Hong Kong martial-arts hit Ip Man 2 and closes July 8 with the Korean swordplay period piece Blades of Blood." And he previews eight titles.
Howard Feinstein previews eight, too, for indieWIRE, and in order of preference, but not before telling the story of the festival's origins. At the top of his list is Hitoshi Matsumoto's Symbol: "The well-known comedian-turned-director takes the 'Butterfly Effect' (the flapping of a wing affects some larger situation far away, you know, Chaos Theory) to a mind-boggling surreal degree." Michael Atkinson: "Exhilarating, as only an unprompted slap in the face can be." Edmund Mullins for Black Book: "My favorite film of the festival thus far, it's Ionesco on mescaline." And in his roundup for the House Next Door, John Lichman notes that it'll "fill seats due to Hitoshi Matsumoto's Big Man Japan and an audience expecting something similar. That's good, since they'll get deadpan humor that's left to simmer in an otherwise absurd situation."
Also at the House, Lauren Wissot finds Annyong Yumika, about Japanese porn starlet Yumika Hayashi, to be "a gushing fan letter highly in need of an objective editor." On the other hand, "I can wholeheartedly recommend Groper Train for its 60 minutes of sexy fun."
David Fear and Joshua Rothkopf's five capsules in Time Out New York are a different set altogether. Golden Slumber, for example: "Fans of last year’s NYAFF sleeper hit Fish Story know that Japanese director Yoshihiro Nakamura can do cultish sci-fi; now he’s also mastered the Hitchcockian thriller." From Dennis Dermody's batch of previews in Paper: "My absolute favorite so far."
"Confessions is the latest from Tetsuya Nakashima, who in 2006 made Memories of Matsuko, my absolute favorite of the films I've seen over the years at the New York Asian Film Festival," writes Alison Willmore at IFC.com. Here, "the visual stylings are even slicker, somewhere between a high-end music video and Fight Club-era David Fincher, but all glimpses of humanity has been leeched away. Misery is everything." Back in the NYT, Mike Hale notes that Confessions "has been the No. 1 box-office hit in Japan for three weeks running, holding off Iron Man 2 and Sex and the City 2. Based on a novel by Kanae Minato and being shown for the first time outside Japan, it's an elaborate revenge fantasy with a twist: the protagonist is an adult who exacts vengeance, in a clinical and psychologically sadistic way, on a pair of children."
The film is also "one of eight films being presented in conjunction with Japan Cuts: Festival of New Japanese Film. Some of those will be screened at both the Japan Society and the Walter Reade; Confessions will be shown only at the Japan Society, where it opens Japan Cuts on Thursday night."
And back to Alison. Little Big Soldier, written by Jackie Chan and directed by Ding Sheng, is "a poke in the ribs of ultraserious Chinese historical battle epics like Red Cliff and The Warlords, in which giant armies try to kill each other in meticulously choreographed, CGI-enhanced ways. Set in Warring States-era China, Little Big Soldier stars Chan as a Liang conscript who survives a giant battle (over by the start of the film) by playing dead," and "Chan's truly enjoyable throughout, whether jabbing the general's leg wound in order to win a fight, or carrying a gag about his skill at rock throwing to a giddy conclusion, or coming to the rescue on the back of a buffalo."
Also at IFC.com, Matt Singer: "LA Streetfighters seems blissfully unaware that it is completely absurd, and that is the very quality that elevates it to the level of great bad art. It's not simply that it is poorly made — most low-budget martial arts films are poorly made — it's that LA Streetfighters is strangely made in ways that go way beyond just casting a guy 25 years too old for his part."
"I love cheesy kaiju movies," writes Mark Popham, "I love guys in big rubber suits, I'm even into the nonsensical plots (roach aliens! mind-control rays!) that lead up to the Summoning of Godzilla or the Blowing of the Gamera Horn or what have you. If there is an audience for a kaiju parody movie I am it. And still, Death Kappa just didn't do it for me."
Also at Twitch, Joshua Chaplinsky on Ning Hao's Crazy Racer: "[M]y hopes of Quicksilver meets Pee-Wee's Big Adventure were dashed. Instead, what we get is a throwback to post Pulp Fiction independent cinema circa the late 90s."
Browse the NYAFF 2010 program here.
Updates: Simon Abrams has come up with a terrific way into the festival. For the L Magazine, he's met up with Subway Cinema's Daniel Craft and Grady Hendrix "to talk about some of their favorite movies at this year's festival, from each of the different countries represented."
From Steve Erickson's overview in Gay City News: "Korean director E J-Yong's The Actresses is a must for diva connoisseurs. The rest of us may find it less interesting." He does recommend, though, Little Big Soldier and Golden Slumber, also reviewed by Simon Abrams for the New York Press.
IFC's Matt Singer: "Hollywood still has easiest access to enormous budgets and cutting edge special effects, but all of that pales in comparison to good old-fashioned thoughtful storytelling of the kind in NYAFF selection Secret Reunion. This film fulfills all the requirements of a summer movie — fine action sequences, superb plot twists, deadpan humor — but never at the expense of its intelligence."
Charles Webb at Twitch on Teddy Chen's Bodyguards and Assassins: "The whole picture — but especially the first half — feels congratulatory in an especially unearned way, elevating the revolutionary leader Dr Sun Yat Sen to (Sun Wen) to a nearly legendary level in spite of avoiding the tricky business of relaying to the viewer why he was so important and inspirational to the people of China."
Update, 6/26: " For a simple B movie, Chaw has a multitude of characters, and at times I felt like I was watching the Magnolia of killer pig films," writes Joshua Chaplinsky at Twitch. "I'm sure there's an audience out there for Chaw's slapdash mash-up of genre, but brother, it ain't me."
Updates, 6/27: "Ip Man 2, with the political urgency gone, is lighter and sillier than the first one, but still great fun to watch," finds Dustin Chang.
Also at Twitch, Mark Popham: "Storm Warriors may not break the boundaries of wuxia film, but it definitely moves the thread forward."
"Yimeng Jin's Sophie's Revenge is a gleeful, well-polished Chinese rom-com with a lot of slapstick humor and snippy banter," finds Alexander Thebez.
And Charles Webb on Boys on the Run: "It's more of a laughing quietly or uncomfortably film as opposed to a laugh-out-loud experience, but I think that's actually to the movie's benefit."
Updates, 6/28: Listening (58'06"). John Lichman and Vadim Rizov talk with Grady Hendrix at the House Next Door.
Niels Matthijs at Twitch on Cow: "If there is one genre that lacks critical acclaim it's without a doubt the animal/buddy genre. Usually aimed at small children and/or pet lovers, most of these films only aim for 'awww, cute' value and have little else to offer the viewer. Leave it to the Chinese to come up with something that resembles actual quality film making."
I've mentioned before, in some other context, that the Japan Society tumbls, but I should mention it again right about now since they've been previewing Japan Cuts, which opens on Thursday, for a full month now. Trailers, posters, stills, blurbs, links to reviews, the works.
Matt Singer on Bodyguards and Assassins: "It would take someone with a cold, cold heart not to enjoy a film about kung fu revolutionaries, but it would also someone with a very patient mind not to be turned off by the rampant speechifying." And then there's Development Hell, "which was billed as a documentary about Bodyguards' troubled production but is really more of a meandering tour through the trenches of Hong Kong cinema."
Also at IFC.com, Alison Wlllmore finds that Symbol "succeeds against all odds in being even stranger than Big Man Japan."
Simon Abrams has an opening weekend roundup for the New York Press.
At Twitch: Charles Webb on Annyoung Yumika and Dustin Chang on a "sleeper hit of 2009 in Japan," 8000 Miles, "a no budget tragicomedy about wannabe b-boys in Saitama, a Tokyo suburb." And: "With 8000 Miles 2: Girl Rappers, [Yu] Irie has matured to a patient, observant filmmaker representing the blank generation of Japan and I expect great things from him in the future." And Chang talks with Irie.
Updates, 6/29: Simon Abrams posts an overview of Japan Cuts for the NYP.
"For me, this year's edition surprised me with its Chinese slate," writes R Emmet Sweeney in his overview of the festival for TCM, "and specifically the skittish performances of actor Huang Bo, recepient of this year's redundantly titled Star Asia Rising Star Award. My knowledge of contemporary Chinese cinema doesn't extend far beyond the arthouses and underground film clubs that show Jia Zhangke and the documentaries of Zhao Dayong. So getting exposed to Huang in the antic Crazy Racer and morbidly funny Cow expanded my limited horizons."
Updates, 6/30: Aaron Hillis argues that "in its fourth and biggest year yet, Japan Cuts proves too vital to be considered a spillover event, with a section dedicated to the best unreleased treasures of the past decade (fittingly billed here as 'the Naughties' and including 2005's shouldn't-be-missed Hanging Garden and the equally necessary Memories of Matsuko, a 2006 candy-colored musical tragedy)."
Also in the Voice, a recommendation from J Hoberman: John Woo's Red Cliff "is now 2888 minutes, not one of them dull."
At Twitch: Ben Umstead on Sawako Decides, "one of the best chick flicks I have ever seen," and Confessions. Also: Charles Webb on Little Big Soldier.
"High concepts don't get much more low-brow than Alien Vs Ninja, a great victory for truth in advertising and a movie whose subject matter can be — and is — summed up in just three words." Matt Singer for IFC.com: "Crackling with enthusiasm (if not high-end special effects), the movie delivers exactly what it promises, not a bit more, not a bit less."
Update, 7/1: "Though The Blood of Rebirth isn't autobiographical, it is apparently indicative of director Toshiaki Toyoda's tumultuous past five years," writes Ben Umstead. "What you know of his life and previous films will greatly affect how you view his latest, which by most accounts seems to be a creative and personal cleansing - indeed, something of a rebirth." Also at Twitch, Joshua Chaplinsky on Golden Slumber, Alexander Thebez on Mutant Girls Squad and Umstead on Actresses.
And at Twitch, you'll also find Charles Webb on Castaway on the Moon, "a fairly quiet movie without a whole lot of big moments but the heart (and melancholy) of it stick with you well after you leave the theater."
Update, 7/3: Peter Gutierrez at Twitch on Doman Seman: "For fans of out-there cinema, especially of the anything-goes Asian variety, Gô Shibata's new film presents something of a conundrum: it's wild, wacky, subversive-minded, undeniably experimental, and often innovative... yet feels, paradoxically, excruciatingly conventional. In short, I've rarely seen a film with such radical aesthetics, not to mention politics, that's nonetheless so humdrum."
Updates, 7/8: Diva Velez talks with Simon Yam and Charles Webb interviews Asami, both for Twitch, where Chris Bourne reviews Yuki Tanada's Electric Button (Moon and Cherry): Rather than pinku eiga, it's "closer to another genre of Japanese sex film called roman porno, which was similar to pink film but had a more literary, artistic bent and felt less formulaic than many pink films. Tanada, a female director, offers a startling inversion of the normally male-oriented perspective of these films, and calls attention to aspects that would normally not be closely questioned or examined." Also, "one of the true oddities of this year's selections is Ye Daying's Tian An Men, a slightly modernized slice of straight-up PRC propaganda created for last year's 60th anniversary of the 1949 founding of the People's Republic of China." And "while Accidental Kidnapper isn't a very substantial film, there are plenty worse ways to while away a couple of hours than in the presence of a bumbling criminal and the adorable tot he keeps in tow."
Dustin Chang: "Okay, on paper, Bare Essence of Life is goofy as hell. Its plot is shoddy and the mix of realistic settings and surrealistic elements doesn't always work. But Satoko Yokohama's film is completely original and fresh." Also: "One Million Yen Girl is an interesting take on the road movie genre in the age of economic meltdown."
"Power Kids is a movie awesome in its ridiculousness, spectacular in its madness," writes Charles Webb. And Mark Popham: "I'm not sure if we needed another Ong Bak, but I think we could really get some mileage out of some more Merantaus."