Echoing the New York immigrant experience, the Chinese movie scene has gradually moved out of its ghetto and uptown. I remember in the ’80s and ’90s the cats running all over the Music Palace at Hester and Bowery, and the concession stand among the seats where they sold, loudly, not popcorn but shrimp crackers. All the films had English subtitles, so whitey buffs flocked downtown to join the (diminishing) local audience. There were three other theaters in Chinatown: the Rosemary, the Sun Sing, and the Pagoda, all victims of home video and rising real estate costs.
A few white boys got together on the Internet in 1999 and created Subway Cinema to keep the movies on real screens; they added other national cinemas from Asia into the mix. I recall going to Anthology Film Archives on East Second Street, where Grady Hendrix, a showman with the energy of a hummingbird, would go on stage in a pink jacket before each feature and whip the spectators into a frenzy with hype and a raffle. (The Subway team these days is comprised of Hendrix, Goran Topalovic, Marc Walcow, and Dan Craft.) A few years later they moved to the IFC Center on Sixth Avenue and West 3rd.
This year they are making a big leap, up to West 65 Street and Lincoln Center’s relatively staid Walter Reade Theater, which could use the youthful demographic these flicks bring. Some of the films play at the Japan Society. These are not art films, no Wong Kar-wai or Apichatpong Weerasethakul. The main honoree is not Hou Hsiao-hsien, but Hong Kong martial arts choreographer Sammo Hung. This is popular cinema, consciously unpretentious, and, as always, it’s an eclectic mix. Below are the ones that, for me anyway, stand out, in order of preference. As the Subway boys like to say, “Asian films are Go!”
1. “Symbol,” directed by Hitoshi Matsumoto – Japan
The well-known comedian-turned-director takes the “Butterfly Effect” (the flapping of a wing affects some larger situation far away, you know, Chaos Theory) to a mind-boggling surreal degree. For a while you watch two films: a nicely shot conventional Mexican tale about a washed-up provincial wrestler and his family; and a series of abstractions of Matsumoto himself trapped in, and trying to find a way out of, a sterile white space with rubber cherubs’ penises dotting the walls. There is a connection between the two narratives, far-fetched for sure, with an outrageously dynamic payoff.
2. “Cow, directed by Guan Hu – China
Holland sends a cow to China. It’s a new breed for the local mountain peasants, and Niu Er (an astounding Huang Bo) is the peasant who takes charge of this miracle milk machine. After the Japanese nearly decimate the village, the cow remains and serves their needs. Attempting to liberate the animal, Niu Er inadvertently becomes part of the resistance. A flood of postwar refugees demand the overused cow’s milk, as do the Nationalist Chinese. The Communist victors grant him ownership. Guan Hu films the verdant hills and stone walls with an appealing grace. This landscape is the perfect backdrop for Huang Bo’s performance as the idiot savant.
3. and 4. “Ip Man” and “Ip Man 2,” directed by Wilson Yip – Hong Kong
The great Donnie Yen plays Ip Man, a practitioner of the southern Chinese kung fu style known as Wing Chun. In the first film, Yen is a wealthy practitioner of the sport who refuses to take on students, directing his energy into good deeds. The invasion of two sets of foes changes all that: first, a bunch of thugs from the north trying to impose their form of kung fu on the town and eliminate competing schools; and the brutal Japanese, whose occupation results in Ip Man’s having to support his family carrying coal. The Japanese general is a martial arts fan, but abuses the students and teachers, leading the otherwise tranquil Ip Man to challenge him. In the sequel, an impoverished Ip Man has moved to Hong Kong and now desperately tries to find students to support his wife and son. He comes up against a shady master, played by Sammo Hung himself. The choreography in “Ip Man 2” is much more impressive than in the first one, and the conflict between the different approaches to martial arts elaborated upon viscerally.
5. “The Blood of Rebirth,” directed by Toshiaki Toyoda – Japan
Anyone who saw “Hanging Garden” knows what a tremendous stylist Toyoda is. Unfortunately, he was busted for drug possession and lost a few years of filmmaking. Now he’s back with a sensuous tale set in medieval times, when a lord orders a peripatetic masseur killed for not capitulating to his demands to stay put. The masseur chooses neither heaven nor hell but rather a return to earth for revenge and for the hand of a lady of the court. After a tedious sequence where he bathes in a rejuvenating spring, the masseur achieves his vindication, with Toyoda’s hip band playing the background music and animated scenes of men in a boiling cauldron pushing the envelope far and impressively.
6. “Dear Doctor,” directed by Miwa Nishikawa – Japan
Okay, there’s lots of schmaltz here. A medical supplies salesman passes for a country doctor who is much beloved in the community. His nurse and a young intern suspect his incompetence, but they do nothing. After all, he offers solace to lonely geriatrics. The film is structured by chapters as well as a police investigation into his fraud and disappearance. A huge hit in Japan, the movie runs circles around the overrated Oscar winner Departures.
7. “Golden Slumber,” directed by Yoshihiro Nakamura – Japan
A simple delivery man who had his 15 minutes of celebrity when he saved a starlet from attack two years before is framed for the assassination of the prime minister. The poor fellow always talks about “trust,” but many from his past betray him. The police hunt affords opportunities for excellent chase scenes, in cars and on foot. This is like “The Fugitive” but in the sad city of Sendai.
8. “A Little Pond,” directed by Lee Saang Woo – South Korea
Even kitschier than “Dear Doctor,” this film is important for its political context. Woo shoots assorted villagers as happy or discontented in endearing ways. Then the Americans come and screw everything up. They give inconsistent directions to the townspeople, so that they can flee the Communists, then open fire on them for trying to get away. The film is based on the July, 1950 massacre at Nogunri, where 218 civilians were killed over a three-day period. Even though the South Korean government owned up to the incident in 2005, the U.S. has yet to acknowledge it. It’s terrible to say, but the massacre is very well done. The main thing is to get the word out that years before My Lai in Vietnam affected public opinion at home, we were committing the same kind of cowardly acts elsewhere. Shame, shame, shame…
[The New York Asian Film Festival takes place June 25 – July 8.]