It seems like the hippest discussion topics for underground cinema fans these days are "Snakes on a Plane" and Asian Cinema, which means the fifth anniversary of the New York Asian Film Festival has arrived in perfect time. Hosted by a grassroots group called Subway Cinema, NYAFF has been way ahead of the game for years now, providing New York City with two weeks' worth of some of the best modern cinema that Asia has to offer. While other festivals are highlighting Asia in their midnight program with bland horror films like Korea's "Voice", Subway has been serving up one of the most diverse selections of Asian films in the country -- rivaled only by the Philadelphia International Film Festival -- and this year is no exception. From the dramatic sentimentalism of Gu Changwei's "Peacock" to the nihilistic torture in Thai horror film "Art of the Devil 2" (no relation to first "Art of the Devil") to the gross absurdity of Naoki Kudo's new comedy, "Oh! My Zombie Mermaid," NYAFF offers a little bit of Asian cinema for everyone. The fest opened on June 16th and will continue through July 1st in New York City.
This year's festival opened with the U.S. Premiere of the bloody Malaysian film "Gangster." Unlike typical Malaysian cinema, which is characteristically meditative, "Gangster" is a fast paced, aesthetically gritty movie featuring three overlapping stories about murder, prostitution and street racing. The film was the highest grosser in Malaysia in 2005. Director Bade Haji Azmi was on hand at the screening last week to introduce the film.
The festival will close with the New York Premiere of "Linda Linda Linda", a fun little film about a group of Japanese schoolgirls with rock star ambitions, which premiered in the 2005 Toronto International Film Festival. Other NYAFF guests will include Eiichiro Hasumi, Hideaki Ito and Ryuta Sato, the director and stars of "Umizaru 2: Test of Trust". This is the sequel to "Umizaru," the film that Subway's Grady Hendrix describes as "Japan's Top Gun for the Coast Guard" and premiered at NYAFF International in 2004.
NYAFF will also highlight Indian filmmaker Ram Gopal Varma. Despite his amazing competency on a range of genres including horror ("Bhoot") and thrillers ("Kaun"), Varma is best known for producing gangster films, four of which will be presented throughout the course of the festival, including the world premiere of his most recent directorial masterpiece, "Shiva". Often called the Indian Scorcese, Varma deftly juggles the traditional large gangster epic with an honesty and brutality rarely seen in Bollywood, subtracting singing and dancing from the equation and replacing it with pure visceral impact. Ab Tak Chhappan, Ek Hasina Thi and, his most famous film, "Company" (also directed by Varma), will also be screened.
NYAFF 2006 will also include "Funky Forrest: The First Contact". In his third directorial feature, director Katsuhito Ishii teams up with Hajime Ishimine and Shin'ichiro Miki to create three surreal science fiction musical stories that hilariously defy all logic and comprehension. Ishii's last feature, "The Taste of Tea", won the audience award when it had its US premiere at NYAFF 2005.
Picks from NYAFF '06:
"A Bittersweet Life" - Featuring bloody, exciting fight scenes tempered by a haunting tone, this chilling little Korean mafia story from the director of "A Tale of Two Sisters" is much more than a beautifully shot action flick. The film, like much of the best current Korean cinema including Park Chan-Wook's "Oldboy," leaves you with a profound feeling of emptiness that will resonate for days after.
"Ski Jumping Pairs: Road To Torino 2006" - One of the best in a recent slew of mockumentaries, "Ski Jumping Pairs" chronicles the history of a fake Olympic sport in which two skiers conquer the traditional 394 ft. jump on one set of skis. Boasting a cheerful silliness that invites the audience in on the joke while still keeping the serious façade of a Japanese TV news program, "Ski Jumping Pairs" is not just a playful piece of filmmaking, but also a sharp satire on sports culture all over the world. The festival will also be showing the short sequel, "Ski Jumping Pairs 2007".
"Duelist" - Part lush period piece, part searing melodrama, and part stylized action adventure, "Duelist" marks Myung-se Lee's return to the big screen after his six year hiatus. In keeping with his previous work, "Duelist" allows Lee to dupe the audience, and possibly the studio, into believing that they are attending a by-the-book action flick, packed to the core with beautiful imagery. Nevermind the silly narrative, the real story here is the pitch perfect avant-garde study of movement he has running throughout the film. Sit back, relax and enjoy the shot compositions that put "Hero" and "House of Flying Daggers" to shame.
"The Great Yokai War" - Prolific Japanese director Takashi Miike returns with his best film in years - a kids movie about a young boy who is recruited by a group of goblins to keep a powerful band of demons from taking over the world. The director keeps the film from being too cute and cuddly for a mass audience by maintaining his trademark edginess, while taking the attention span of the average child into consideration keeps Miike from going off into the unnecessary tiresome tangents he has taken to in his last few outings. Maybe a little too scary for very young children, but any child old enough to be interested in a subtitled film can probably handle it.
[For more information, please visit the festival's website.]
ABOUT THE WRITER: Michael Lerman is a staff writer for The Bard Free Press and is also the Programming Assistant for the Woodstock Film Festival and will be curating part of the 2007 Philadelphia Film Festival.