Fourteen years ago, the collective Subway Cinema created what would become known as the New York Asian Film Festival as a nearly word-of-mouth affair at Anthology Film Archives under the moniker Asian Films Are Go!!
Refreshingly anarchistic, it was an intimate patch-up of cinema and circus. In 2010, the festival found digs uptown at the Film Society of Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater, where it continues with its latest edition this Friday.
Hey, the Walter Reade is the best, but…what all did Subway gain by downplaying its hip-‘n-funky quotient when most edgy and outsider cinema was heading toward, say, Brooklyn? DCP projector. Right. Efficient ushering. Check. Comfort. No contest. Appearance. Appearance? "Asians are status conscious," executive director and co-founder Goran Topalovic said. "Walter Reade is more presentable than Anthology. Lincoln Center has international allure. Having stars and directors as guests attracts more audience and helps raise the profile of the festival domestically and internationally, which allows us to land big premieres of new films and to increase funding."
But, it turns out that there's more going on here than financing a film festival. "We’re trying to build a financial base that will allow us to do other activities, such as an Asian Film Preservation Fund," Topalovic said, "where we hope to be able to preserve and restore neglected classics of Asian cinema, and bring them back into circulation."
Something's lost, something’s gained. The NYAFF, which runs this year from June 27 - July 14, is forging ahead in a most exciting way.
Of 60 features, here are the five must-sees, in order of preference.
1. "The Snow White Murder Case" (Yoshihiro Nakamura, Japan)
“Murder, My Tweet” might be an alternate title for this fabulous, highly original policier minus cops — a homicide investigation without forensics. The opening shot could be an image right out of the Brothers Grimm in the hands of a pyromaniac: The corpse of a stunning young woman burns in what could pass for a magical forest. We suddenly jump centuries ahead, to the Twitterverse. Clusters of posts about what quickly becomes a surreal and sexy case appear all over the screen; never too far from reality, the film does not leave out such banal tweets as what one had for dinner.
A master multitasker, Nakamura never lets them interfere with the overall visual and narrative flow. The avalanche begins when an opportunistic young TV reporter seeks out the perp from among three colleagues of the deceased (all four petty and jealous) in a cosmetics firm. The film’s POV shifts gracefully as each of them offer different recollections of workplace head-butting and love entanglements preceding the crime. Going the easiest route, the sleazy journo indiscriminately tweets an unchecked case against the mousiest of them, Miki Shirono (Mao Inoue, terrific). Rush to verdict by anonymous anybodies replaces trial by judge or jury. Like the source novel by Kanae Minato, the film does slow down for a detour to honor the endurable bonds that can and do exist between sincere, loving women.
2. "Han Gong-ju" (Lee Su-jin, Korea)
This knockout succeeds as a psychologically and emotionally dark study as well as a devastating social critique, but its true brilliance lies in a smoothly shifting temporal structure and an oh-so-gradual parsing of information until the bits and pieces coalesce into a credible and devastating whole. Chun Woo-hee is perfectly restrained as the titular character, a 17-year-old high-school girl in Incheon who transfers to another district following an obscenely traumatic gang rape. She carries the stigma of shame. Swimming incessantly to relieve stress, she attempts to build a new identity at the second school. Except for bonding with girls in an a cappella group, she avoids public exposure. Anonymity, however, is a thing of the past. The child of rotten divorced parents, Gong-ju has no support structure, but the jailed bestial boys do. The only one able to understand her pain is her prickly landlady, Mrs. Cho (Lee Young-lan, excellent), a middle-aged adulteress and social outcast herself.
3. "Cold Eyes" (Choi Eui-seok, South Korea)
An ultra-slick remake of the 2007 Johnnie To-produced Hong Kong actioner “Eye in the Sky,” this labor of meticulous obsession tracks agents of Seoul’s Special Crime Unit’s surveillance division in frustrated pursuit of icy cerebro-criminal James (Jung Woo-sung). James rules from skyscraper rooftops, yanking a tiny arsenal of high-tech equipment out of his briefcase to oversee major heists down below in major banks and even the stock exchange. The overhead perch affords him an omniscient, Mabuse-like command station ideal for swooping aerial shots, while the lengthy traveling shots and handheld work at ground level works for the visceral clashes between his dirty workers and the security detail, who rely on their own sophisticated technology and ubiquitous (disquieting, to be honest) surveillance cameras. Leader of the latter pack, played by an outstanding ensemble, is unironed Hwang (a sterling Sol Kyung-gu), who’s also training gorgeous memory-whiz Ha Yoon-joo (Han Hyo-joo). More than the crooked mastermind, her greatest enemy turns out to be empathy in a disciplined profession as cold in its way as James’s overall gestalt.
4. "The Great Passage" (Yuya Ishii, Japan)
"In the beginning was the Word," the chief editor of the fizzling dictionary department of a publishing house tells his minuscule staff in 1995, while announcing a new project: The Great Passage, a bound “dictionary of the moment” which will include new technical terms, slang, and incorrect usages. A brash employee, who will prove a positive catalyst, hustles for a nerd within the company to join in — and hopefully replace him — for the herculean task, daring in the computer age. As withdrawn as a turtle, sales rep Majime (Ryuhei Matsuda, who transitions adroitly) fits the bill, save for the boss’s ultimate goal, “the desire to be connected to others.” We see not only the development of the tome during 14 years, over softly rendered changing seasons, but the passage of Majime himself from nearly autistic bookworm to communicator and decisive editor. He’s landed a beautiful wife and overseen five taxing drafts before the slightest of hiccoughs begin. A Japanese melodrama of the classical school, this love letter to written language steadily observes life’s rhythms, poetic in spite of its proudly foregrounded wonk factor.
5. "Miss Zombie" (Sabu, Japan)
A research doctor, his well-mannered wife, and adorable little boy illegally adopt as pet and servant a young “low-level” female zombie, Shara (pin-up Ayaka Komatsu), scarred but almost human. The bourgeois setting is futuristic, but this spare, black-and-white gem borrows generously from silent films, especially in the exaggerated acting of the parents and the languorous pace of an obvious build-up to a horror-movie climax.
All day long, Shara scrubs a single spot on a patch of mosaic tile in the backyard of the brutally aestheticized home — the loud scratching sound recurs throughout. Her upright backside, stiffened by rigor mortis, turns on two vulgar, abusive male workers, then the effete scientist himself. Once sex enters this blackly humorous ambience, tragedy rears its head. Shara uses her vampiric powers to aid the child in distress, but no one goes unaffected. Long takes of static set-ups give way to chases and shootouts. With rare poignancy, the film becomes a paean to the maternal bond in which unexpected double twists shock and touch even the most callous viewer.