New York Asian Film Festival guide

The cultish fest returns with a psychotronic vengeance.

  • All Around Us

  • Breathless

  • The Clone Returns Home

  • Exodus

  • House

All Around Us

There are times when a film lover wants to philosophically contemplate the nature of existence while a monochromatic Death plays chess with an angstful Swedish knight. And then there are days when, frankly, all you really want is a comely young woman slicing, dicing or machine-gunning assorted bad dudes while gallons of Karo syrup spill willy-nilly.

You almost certainly won’t find such popsploitation pleasures at, say, the highbrow New York Film Festival, but you’re guaranteed to get them ad nauseam—with the emphasis on nauseam—at the New York Asian Film Festival, a premier showcase of wacky, weird and way-far-gone cinema. (Should you crave the aforementioned cinematic experience, by the way, check out Kengo Kaji’s Samurai Princess, Yoshihiro Nishimura’s Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl or the two Hard Revenge Milly features in this year’s schedule. Don’t say we didn’t warn you.)

Now in its eighth year, the NYAFF continues to skew heavy toward the sort of cultish, midnight-movie fare that’s its bread and butter; just because the fest changed its appropriately amped original title (“Asian Films Are Go!”) a while back doesn’t mean that it’s dropped the adrenaline ber alles ideology. But the programmers have managed to slip in a few choice art-house selections in recent editions, and last year’s balance between intellectually challenging films (United Red Army, Sad Vacation) and the usual fanboy favorites proved that they’ve definitely found their groove. The 2009 lineup isn’t quite as varied, but there are still several don’t-miss titles nestled among the gut-punching, grosser-than-gross-out genre flicks. Read on.

We always hoped that Japanese filmmaker Ryosuke Hashiguchi would eventually return to screens; after his incredible Hush! (2001) was followed by an extended silence, we feared he’d retired altogether. This muted domestic drama about a married couple, however, finds Hashiguchi not only back on the scene but in peak form. Charting the relationship of a slackerish courtroom sketch artist (Tae Kimura) and a control-freak publishing executive (Lily Franky) from Bergman-style communication breakdown to mutual bliss through Zen painting, Hashiguchi constructs a fleshed-out portrait of imperfect (read: realistic) matrimony. The fact that the duo’s various ups and downs are filtered through a decade of Japan’s social ills—boom-and-bust economic fervors, a spate of cultish homicides—just adds depth to their often uneasy union. In this tragic world, they’ve only got each other, and thanks to Hashiguchi’s unsentimental touch, you’re left believing that’s more than enough for them to get by. July 2 at 8:45pm, July 5 at 2:45pm; Japan Society—DF

Hey, kids: Do you like sullen, irredeemable antiheroes who’d just as soon kick you in the skull as glance at you? Are you fans of movies like Bad Lieutenant? We have just the film for you. Sang-hoon (writer, director and star Yang Ik-june) is a debt collector who likes to bust up student protests and deliver random beatdowns in his off-hours. When he bumps into a teen schoolgirl (Kim Gol-bi) and she demands an apology, the brute punches her in the face; they quickly become best friends. A serious flip of the bird to South Korea’s film industry, Yang’s independent feature took the top prize at this year’s Rotterdam Film Festival and is a serious contender for the title of most scabrous indictment of Korean masculinity ever committed to celluloid. Like a human black hole, Sang-hoon sucks everything and everyone who cross his path into a vortex of violence; by the time this primal scream of a character study reaches its inevitable conclusion, you’ll feel as if you were on the receiving end of his outbursts. It’s brutal and, unequivocally, the one real masterpiece of the festival. Thu 25 at 7:15pm, July 2 at 2pm; IFC—DF

Sci-fi movies basically come in two flavors: There’s the poppy, warp-speed kind, set in a sleek, gadget-laden future, and there’s the heavy-duty thinker, in which serious ideas are grappled with by depressed mopes. Both types are valuable—and let’s thank our stars for the latter. The Clone Returns Home marks a distinguished return to the deep-space mindscapes last explored by Russia’s Andrei Tarkovsky, with heady 1970s art-house epics like Solaris and Stalker. The pace is leisurely, misty shots of woods and water tipping the story toward the metaphysical. An astronaut (or is it his double?) revisits a childhood trauma involving a deceased twin; the universe of the movie includes spacesuits and anticloning protestors alike. Identity is writer-director Kanji Nakajima’s true subject, as it must be for a movie with so many doubles running around. You might find yourself—to borrow another sci-fi term—transported. Mon 22 at 9:30pm, Wed 1 at 11am; IFC—JR

From the very first scene—a long, languid backward tracking shot that captures a violent police “interrogation” already in progress—Pang Ho-cheung’s cryptic, preternaturally calm thriller announces its intentions: Forget the slam-bang, two-guns-a-blazin’ Hong Kong genre cinema of yesteryear. Simon Yam (Election) is the cop who questions a suspect brought in for lewd and lascivious behavior. It isn’t perversity that drove the perp to peep in a ladies’ restroom, apparently; he’s discovered evidence of a female conspiracy to kill off men. Yam believes the man is cuckoo-for--Cocoa Puffs...until his own investigation starts turning up some rather mysterious clues. Paranoia over the XX-chromosomed has rarely been this impeccably rendered, though it’s impossible to say whether the director is working through some serious misogynistic issues of his own or is simply so subtle in his satirizing that you almost miss the joke. The movie’s ambiguity, however, only makes it that much more intriguing. Bring a date. Or, um, not. Sat 27 at 11am, Mon 29 at 12:50pm; IFC—DF

There’s got to be room in this fest for premium-grade silliness, and here’s where House comes in. A cult-object extraordinaire, Nobuhiko Obayashi’s 1977 whatsit combines schoolgirls and a spooky domicile just like your typical J-horror film. But there’s where the comparisons end. Shot in crummy 8mm with a radioactive color palette, the movie flings all manner of spaced-out dream sequences, Calgon-type reveries, animated skeletons, artificial backdrops and virgin-chomping witchery in your face. A disembodied head bites one girl on the butt; she gets off easy. If it feels like it’s been concocted by a seven-year-old with a fetish for horses, you’re right: The script was largely plotted by Obayashi’s prepubescent daughter. Thu 25 at 10pm; IFC—JR

The New York Asian Film Festival runs through July 5 at IFC Center and Japan Society.

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