As summer rolls around, Subway Cinema reminds us that it's time for another year of their New York Asian Film Festival, this time skewed even more toward the wacky, weird and wonderful. With their biggest presentation ever, thanks to large pieces of sponsorship from groups like Dragon Dynasty (The Weinstein Company's genre label), the home-grown film festival just gets classier as they move to the IFC Center in downtown Manhattan for the bulk of their screenings. Presenting new crowd-pleasing hits from NYAFF alum like Ryu Seung-wan ("The City of Violence") and Takashi Miike ("Big Bang Love, Juvenile A"), the festival gathered up its old audience and moved them across town, only to add more and more to their numbers.
"We've been really lucky with attendance this year," said Grady Hendrix, one of the founders of Subway Cinema, "Lots of walk-ups at IFC." Packed houses watched as masters like Sion Sono ("Suicide Club"), one of the festivals most prestigious guests, made an appearance with his latest film, "Hair Extensions," a horror movie--about possessed hair!--that owes more than a little bit of style to the early films of David Cronenberg.
Other guests include director Je-yong Lee who's zany film "Dasepo Naughty Girls," a hit on this year's festival circuit, embodies all the eccentricities filmgoers have come to expect out of Asian cinema. NYAFF screened "Dasepo Naughty Girls" as well as selections from the Mise-En-Scene's Genre Film Festival, a festival of shorts curated by Lee along with well-known Korean auteurs like Bong Joon-Ho ("The Host") and Park Chan-wook ("Oldboy"), whose latest film "I Am a Cyborg, But That's Okay," a wild and intriguing, but ultimately unaffected and uneven romantic comedy, is also screening in the festival. Also, to make a special appearance this weekend is Shusuke Kaneko, director of the popular Japanese manga adaptations "Death Note" and "Death Note: The Last Name," who will be present for a screening of the first film (the second screens later in the weekend) followed by a Q & A and a party for all attending audience members.
But perhaps the most interesting program NYAFF has to offer came along with special guest Omar Kahn, director of Pakistan's first gory zombie movie, "Hell's Ground." On Tuesday night, Kahn screened not only his film, but also a reel of clips from rare pieces of Pakistani exploitation cinema which he has collected over the years and written extensively about on his website. "It's really [exciting] to give you a feeling for what this stuff is like,and then show you how we made a departure from it with our film." With "Hell's Ground," he hopes to take a more realistic approach to the portrayal of Pakistani teenagers, citing that very few of them follow all religious rules at such a young age. "I've been surprised at the extremely positive response we got back home," Kahn said, admitting that he was a bit worried about the possibility of political or social backlash.
But gore, action, madmen and monsters aren't all that NYAFF has had to offer. Take, for example, the wrought emotional drama of the winner of the 2007 Hong Kong Film Award for Best Film, Patrick Tam's "After This Our Exile," which makes a simple divorce into an epic tale of family turmoil. Or how about "Hula Girls," the heartwarming, yet somewhat stale story of a group of Japanese teenage girls trying to make it big in the world of hula dancing? All of this seems to pale in comparison when you consider "Never Belong to Me," the outrageous new blacker than black comedy from Korean director Nam Ki-woong (helmer Korea's first digitally shot narrative feature, the aptly titled "Teenage Hooker Becomes Killing Machine Daehakroh"). Nam's newest project is a stiltedly hilarious, yet psychotic, tale of a tiger-man and his half brother whose misadventures with crime include cyborgs, a deranged doctor and a penis gun that shoots sperm instead of bullets. "Never" is clearly one of the most eccentric, yet engaging offerings that NYAFF has to offer, proving that with genre stylings, even in the artsy-ist of movies, is where the festival succeeds best.
This might be another reason for the growing ticket sales. While year's past have boasted insightful, yet unfortunately badly attended, sidebars from masterclass directors like Ram Gopal Varma, this year's program slants towards a pop sensibility in Asian cinema today that seems to be just what the doctor ordered to make the ticket sales sky rocket. It's no surprise that many of this year's biggest hits have been making their way through midnight programs on the festival circuit. Films like Kiyoshi Kurasawa's "Retribution" and Soi Cheang's "Dog Bite Dog" have been popular everywhere they go. Even the major children's selection for the year, "Gamera: The Brave," falls into the genre category of monster movies, providing big, stupid fun for kids of all ages.
When Subway Cinema first started out, they were heralded as the forefront of a movement to bring Asian films into the American cinematic culture. Many critics still consider them one of the driving forces for companies like Tartan Films, Magnolia Pictures and The Weinstein Company to release so many Asian titles, especially on DVD. Judging by this year's program, the festival seems to have come full circle, being influenced by the general populous' overwhelming interest in genre. But as films like Johnnie To's gangster masterpiece "Exiled" prove, Asia still does it better than anyone else. So it's not too late to get a little taste of it courtesy of Subway Cinema. The festival continues through this weekend, moving uptown to the Japan Society for their final screenings. But come early, or it may just be sold out.