Except for the occasional self-consciously sensuous, rather feminine artwork, Asian iconography leans toward the chaotic: war damage, displacement, nature’s disarray. In photographs and films, this is often manifested in non-demarcated battle zones or unruly cities teeming with rural migrants.
The flip side of such anarchistic rendering is more rigid, more discipline, but not to the extreme–like an architectural grid with a few wavy lines.
At this year’s New York Asian Film Festival, which opens Friday, three movies stand out for falling into this category. These formal cousins are from different countries and set in different eras; two are historical fiction, the third a contemporary documentary about the '60s and '70s. The topics may vary, but they have certain stylistic similarities, such as a consistent rhythm and a well-planned arrangement of scenes, props, and performers.
"Scabbard Samurai" (Hitoshi Matsumoto, Japan)
For a life-and-death endurance test called the 30-Day Feat, the samurai Najuro (Takaaki Nomi), a burnt-out shell of a man now under arrest, must perform something clownish daily in a frustrating attempt to get a chuckle out of the melancholic young son of the lord of the Taku Clan. The boy has not smiled since the death of his mother. Najuro’s crime? After his wife died, he abandoned his position as a samurai by removing his sword from its cover, a narrative echo of the boy’s response to the loss of his mother. If he fails: disembowelment, or seppuku.
Matsumoto’s principal structuring strategy in this film, which he made with extreme precision, is repetition. He punctuates the nearly endless progression of Najuro’s "acts" with a pronouncement of sentencing by the lord's aid ("Thou shalt commit Seppuku!") and a drum roll.
But he avoids the boredom that can accompany redundancy. He shoots the stagings from various points of view, including some where sound is our only connection to the action. He never frames Kanjuro in the same way, so that his routines are formally differentiated, as are the "backstage" entr'acte collaborations by Najuro, his cute, precocious daughter,
and his two sympathetic guards.
In addition the director increases the number of spectators with each performance, beginning with a handful, then expanding to a large crowd of eager ticketbuyers. The rhythm is accumulative: The movie ends with a daring coda in which a balladeer (Matusumoto himself) sings a beautiful ballad about love and memory directly to the camera as the samurai’s daughter and the young lord pray together and, with potent irony, laugh and play games in front of a tombstone. The asymmetry counters the preceding succession of gags.
"The Sword Identity" (Xu Haofeng, China)
Art directors frequently build models when planning a feature. Here the entire set itself has the look and feel of a miniature, its reduced scale conveying a consistent backdrop. In addition, the movements of the male characters, all trained in the martial arts, are akin to those of toy wooden soldiers who have studied under Bob Fosse by day and Twyla Tharp by night. They will suddenly stop in the middle of a sword thrust. The constant here is a rhythm based on exaggerated starts and stops, a graceful jerkiness. Oddly enough, after this prolonged dance a sudden single motion offs the opponent.
Xu uses lots of zooms, most in a symmetrical frame, to add narrative weight to the film’s considerable enmity. There are two criss-crossing storylines, and the interaction can be confusing. Two young men bent on keeping alive a sword technique developed to fight off Japanese pirates that was devised by their late mentor need to set up a fifth martial arts school in town, where four already exist. This requires beating all four masters in matches. Unfortunately, the overall head of the four schools mistakes them for Japanese pirates, on account of their long swords, and imprisons them. One of them, handsome young Song Yang, escapes.
He is pursued by a disgraced old hermit, Qiu Dongyue, a former master who thinks that coming down from his exile on a mountain and capturing Song Yang will enable him to once again become a master. Hu adds occasional comic scenes as diversions to liven up the narrative, such as Song Yang's tying up a bumbling group of coast guard soldiers and covering them with bales of hay.
"Golden Slumbers" (Davy Chou, Cambodia)
In this documentary about the golden age of Cambodian cinema, 1960-1975, substitution is the dominant strategy. How else could Chou make a film about a body of work that has been virtually destroyed? In the ‘70s the Khmer Rouge not only eliminated ordinary citizens and aesthetes, they also destroyed existing films and closed the numerous theaters. Artists were considered counter-revolutionary.
Lobby cards and recordings of theme songs stand in for archival footage when a film is discussed. Former directors, the biggest movie star of the time, and two avid cinephiles recount plots and historical events. Theaters are shown with their facades at the time they were in use, then inside and out as they are today, most of them now karaoke parlors. Chou bridges past and present with fades and dissolves, maintaining the illusion of continuity.
The New York Asian Film Festival runs June 29 through July 12 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.