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New York Asian Film Fest Reviews: ‘Vulgaria,’ ‘The King Of Pigs’ & ‘Dead Bite’

New York Asian Film Fest Reviews: 'Vulgaria,' 'The King Of Pigs' & 'Dead Bite'

Usually the New York Asian Film Festival opens with a film that carries name recognition in the West, either by those involved, or by a familiar genre or trope. In the case of this year’s opener, “Vulgaria,” it’s an increasingly familiar genre, that being the hyper-indulgent, semi-improvisational, low budget indie. From the filmmakers behind China’s mega-hit “Sex And Zen 3D” comes this show business satire, that shares DNA less with French New Wave auteurist pictures, and more with Steven Soderbergh’s bizarre, sexually ersatz “Full Frontal” in its views on the small cogs in a big filmmaking machine.

Chapman To stars as a producer grilled by a room full of film students as to what his job entails. Expecting tales of contract negotiations and backroom dealings, instead the dim-witted filmmaker discusses the behind-the-scenes narrative of his latest film, a big budget sex odyssey where he was forced to play the patsy to an extravagantly delusional financier, a grabby leading lady and a flighty screw-up assistant just to get the film shooting.

The problem with the pointed satire of “Vulgaria,” is that it mostly falls on the shoulders of To, who plays his befuddled mover-and-shaker like a broad sitcom dimwit. There’s a colorful menagerie of supporting characters, like rock star Brother Tyrannosaurs, who puts up the money in the hope the film will include his wife, a pet mule. But these characters manage to stay grounded, given that their actions drive the plot. To’s unnamed producer is a wide-eyed bozo, meanwhile, registering outlandish spit-takes and pratfall-based reactions. By the time the third act’s deus ex machina rescues the cast from having to improvise the thin conflict any further, we have to remind ourselves we’re interested in this man’s journey from doofus to slightly-more-successful doofus. [C-]

Ugly and exposed like a blister, “The King Of Pigs” undoubtedly leaves a compelling psychological mark. An animated effort out of Korea, the class-conscious narrative centers on Jong-Suk, a put-upon husband who can’t help but insert “failed” in front of every attempted profession thus far. After a particularly ugly drunken spat with his wife, he seeks solace in an old friend, Kyung-Min, who hopes to rehash their shared past as bullied kids, a past neither have put behind them.

The bulk of “The King Of Pigs” is told in flashback, as these lower-income kids struggle when bullied by the class’ more well-off aggressors. They are powerless against these crude jerks, one-dimensional dullards who smile through swollen eyes as the retaliation beatings they’ve received from their prey are returned tenfold by overzealous educators. When the nerds find an ally in pugilistic youth Chul, they attain a brief moment of self-respect, one that goes out the window when the bullies seek to destroy this new wannabe hero. Chul’s façade slowly starts to crack under the weight of his tormentors, and his very broken home.

In animated form, the violence in ‘Pigs’ is excessive and unpleasant, though never gratuitous, very specifically observing just exactly how little these characters’ willpower can affect their social standing. Jong-Suk still recalls the penny-pinching his family undergoes to support him and his upwardly-mobile sister, while Kyung-Min has to struggle with the illegitimacy of his father’s somewhat-salacious adult “karaoke,” and bullies can’t resist a little class-based intimidation, which blends seamlessly into homophobic taunts and scatological debasement. While ‘Pigs’ has a messy, unsatisfying conclusion that briefly delves into whodunit territory, there’s an undeniable sadness to the enterprise, a fact not lost on our two protagonists. As they share a quiet meal, their reminiscence can’t obscure an educational system, and eventually social strata, that has branded them “losers” for life. [B]

Playing themselves as a major hip hop act, Thai rapper Joey Boy and fellow MC’s Gancore Club star in the Boy-directed “Dead Bite,” an attempt to meld the world of Thai pop music and Caribbean zombie madness. Struggling to keep their never-ending party going, they desperately take a gig on Mermaid Island with a bevy of bikini’d babes, not aware that this cursed land is populated by the flesh-eating undead. If you said to yourself, “Hey, that sounds like ‘Raw Force’” then you might be the right audience for this. That being said, “Dead Bite” is no “Raw Force.”

Joey Boy and his compatriots are at ease in front of the camera, maybe too much, allowing this blunt-fueled goof-fest to take it’s time in floating towards the ninety-minute mark. The zombie attack sequences never have a tremendous amount of suspense behind them, but there’s some enjoyment to be had by an expendable cast falling prey to the walking dead. Our heroes never really stop acting like dudes, even razzing one of their fellow rappers after he loses a leg and must pick the maggots out of his wound. We’re guessing this was originally going to be in a “Hangover” sequel.

“Dead Bite” gets away with its innate disposability thanks to a raucous soundtrack featuring original music from the Gancore Club, who attempt hip hop postures, but are more 98 Degrees than Public Enemy. There’s more weight given to their off-the-cuff jokes and natural camaraderie than there is to the scares, however, and the film attempts to hit a home run in the ninth inning with a striking tableau of survivors battling zombies along the beach as if it were a bikini festival at Normandy. Boy has a decent eye for composition in these final moments, though you wonder why it took him and his film seventy minutes to rev up, as if they shot sequentially and he learned as they went on. Then again, if you like zombies and Thai pop, this might be your best choice of cocktail. [D+]

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