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New York Asian Film Festival Reviews: ‘Couples,’ ‘You Are The Apple Of My Eye,’ and ‘Honey Pupu’

New York Asian Film Festival Reviews: 'Couples,' 'You Are The Apple Of My Eye,' and 'Honey Pupu'

“Couples” (Jeong Yong-Ki, 2011)
Based on the 2005 Japanese hit “A Stranger of Mine” (directed by Kenji Uchida), “Couples” is kind of like those Rube Goldberg sequences from Jean-Pierre Jeunet (or maybe the “how Cate Blanchett got injured” sequence from “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”), except for an entire feature-length running time. The results are both exhilarating and (at 110 minutes) exhausting. The main hub, where all the subplots and side-stories emanate from, concerns Yoo-Suk (Kim Joo-Hyuk), former photographer and current owner of a small café, who has sunk all of his money into a brand new condo for his wife to be Na-Ri (Lee Si-Young). While out on a date, Na-Ri mysteriously vanishes (that sounds far more menacing than it actually is). From here things spin out: Yoo-Suk hires a private detective to track her down and that private detective ends up getting involved with Na-Ri; Yoo-Suk ventures to the bank and gets caught up in a robbery (and might just find romance with an adorable traffic cop with a modish bob hair style played by Lee Yoon-Ji); and we finally get the story of what happened to Na-Ri, and it involves an over-the-hill gangster (Gong Hyung-Jin) and a wad of stolen mob money. Emphasizing the bizarre coincidences that guide our everyday lives, for the most part “Couples” is a rollicking trifle – certainly more sophisticated, both visually and from a narrative standpoint, than Americanized romantic anthologies like the odious “Valentine’s Day” and “New Year’s Eve” – but at a certain point you stop caring how the interlocking segments of the story snap into place and kind of just want it to be over with, especially since the way it’s set up you start looking for every chance encounter to spin off into its own romantic subplot (and when it doesn’t, you’re weirdly disappointed). (Sections of the movie where couples address the camera in faux documentary style don’t really work at all.) Still, “Couples” is a whole lot of fun and occasionally reaches a level of genuine, heart-swelling magic. What’s more, the movie takes on a fascinating extra dimension as a Far East look at the current economic collapse, one in which everyone (even the hopeless romantics out there) is a few bucks short. [B+]

“You Are the Apple Of My Eye” (Giddens Ko, 2011)
Giddens Ko is a Taiwanese novelist, and “You Are the Apple Of My Eye” is his very first movie, based on his autobiographical book that Ko claims is all about the one that got away. As such, it’s both a bittersweet and uplifting affair, filled with wild visual flourishes and a kind of unbridled, energetic enthusiasm that occasionally borders on manic. The movie focuses on Ko Ching-teng (Ko Chen-tung), a spiky haired smart-ass who claims to be immune to the charms of Shen Chia-yi (Michelle Chen), a girl who every other classmate wants to get with. Of course, since this is a big ole romantic comedy, Shen takes to tutoring Ko and their friendship blossoms into something more. “You Are the Apple of My Eye” is notable for two reasons – one, its unflinching focus on the awkward stretches of a friendship where nothing quite moves forward, but things shift uneasily in a kind of emotional no man’s land (we’ve all been there). The movie seems to at first be an over-caffeinated version of a John Hughes joint (maybe slightly less-caffeinated than, say, “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” but caffeinated just the same) but then takes on additional scope as it follows the central characters as they leave high school, while their feelings remain stuck in their high school classrooms. The second thing that sets “You Are the Apple of My Eye” apart is that it is often weirdly sexually explicit, in a way that most American movies shy away from – there’s a moment when Ko takes part in a masturbation competition in the back of the classroom (!), one character walks around with a permanent erection (the sight of which would earn the movie an automatic R in the states), there’s another masturbation competition in the college (what is it with the masturbation?), and gobs of implied homosexual sex. It’s just more tinsel that makes “You Are the Apple of My Eye” feel more epic and, at the same time, more personal. At one point a character says that he circles the entire island of Taiwan with a broken heart, and then circles it again – it’s a feeling both specific and universal, an easily shared ache. “You Are the Apple of My Eye” may drag occasionally, but it must be applauded for retaining its realness in the midst of some truly novelistic sprawl. [A-]

“Honey Pupu” (Chen Hung-I, 2011)
The programming guide describes “Honey Pupu,” from Taiwan, as an “elegiac tone poem for the internet age.” But we couldn’t really make heads or tails of the story – which concerns the extinction of bees, an online chat room, and a series of mysterious disappearances. At first, despite the kind of cubist editorial technique employed (it reminded us of some latter-day Godard experiment although mercifully free of “Navajo subtitles”), you think that the movie’s central storyline will gel into something recognizable and engaging – primarily, you’re tricked into thinking that it will be about these chat room members meeting up for the first time in real life to solve the aforementioned mysterious disappearances. But no. Things continue. Weirdly. There’s clunky voiceover, a computer-generated bee, splashes of kinky (but nudity-free) sex and lots of shots of young Taiwanese kids riding on motorcycles really fast. (The whole movie has an unappealingly garish color scheme, too – everything is cast in sickly yellows or sour-apple greens.) You can tell that Hung-I and the rest of the filmmakers thought they were making something deep and probing about the human spirit and the ways in which technology has both connected us and driven us apart. But instead of being profound, it winds up being pretentious, with truthfulness exchanged for blunt confusion. The cast seems game enough but it’s hard to make out who is contributing what to such a shattered, fragmented collection of scenes. Out of the bunch of New York Asian Film Festival movies we’ve seen so far, this is by far the most easily skippable and obtuse. [C-]

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