Now in its 14th year, the New York Asian Film Festival brings to viewers an eclectic selection of eastern films from various countries that New Yorkers may not otherwise have the chance to catch. The festival runs from June 26-July 11 and features 54 films. This year, Hong Kong filmmaker Ringo Lam is receiving a lifetime achievement award, and is best-known film, “City on Fire,” which famously influenced Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs,” will run during a special commemorative screening. While there are myriad good movies playing during the festival, we’ve picked five that are especially worth your time. For more information, go here.
“My Love, Don’t Cross That River” (South Korea)
Directed by Jin Mo-young
By turns joyous and devastating, life-affirming and heartrending, Jim Mo-young’s immaculately shot and paced documentary chronicles the final 15 months of the marriage between an 89-year-old woman, Kang Kye-yeol, and a 98-year-old man, Jo Byeong-man, who live in the mountains of the Gangwon Province with their dog. With the zeal and spontaneous excitement of a young couple in the halcyon days of love, they throw leaves and snow at each other and sing songs and talk about their plans for the future, as if they’re just getting started. “This is to give you energy,” Kang tells Jo, giving him some food. “So we can go to the senior citizen center and hang out.” They then get on a party bus and let loose with other seniors.
While some moviegoers may balk at the polished, cinematic look (the beautiful opening shot of Kang mourning in from of the snow-mottled trees sets the tone and establishes Mo-young’s prowess immediately), no one with emotional capabilities can deny the poignancy of watching two people in genuine love, and then suffering genuine loss. In modern parlance, this is 85 minutes of The Feels.
“River Road” (China)
Directed by Li Ruijin
Two brothers venture out to the vast wild of Northwestern China after their grandfather dies, following the dried river bed that transects the unforgiving landscape. The film is narratively sparse and slowly paced but tonally rich, with a pair of keen (and quiet) performances that compliment Ruijin’s articulate, careful direction. Beautiful lensing and lush camerawork turn the desiccated rivers and ruined fjords of Gansu into a fantastical tone poem.
“Pale Moon” (Japan)
Directed by Daihachi Yoshida
A young professional woman (Rie Miyazawa, excellent) in modern Japan struggles to stay above the suffocating ubiquity of sexism and misogyny. While visiting one of her company’s oldest, most discomforting customers with a penchant for making vague, lewd comments and lurking creepily (if his overt grossness seems hyperbolic, it’s really not), she meets the old man’s significantly less sexist grandson (Sosuke Ikematsu), with whom she begins an affair. She also develops a habit of stealing her company’s money, and we have to watch her slowly tighten the figurative noose as she tries to escape her self-created predicament.
While occasionally prone to weird slow-motion moments accompanied by J-Pop music that tug a bit too hard on the proverbial heart strings, “Pale Moon” is a lovely experience that derives its power from Yoshida’s (mostly) deft control of pacing and tone, and the enthusiastic performances from both leads. It’s also refreshing to see a romantic tryst between a young man and a 42-year-old woman (in fairness, she looks like she could be 25), which is basically absent from American movies. Modern moviegoers should make it a priority to catch this.
Directed by Boo Ji-young
A social drama based on a true story, “Cart” concerns the poorly-treated denizens of a retail behemoth who face life-crushing lay-offs. The film benefits tremendously from its two lead performers, Yum Jung-ah and Lee Seung-jun. Jung-ah plays a cheery, bright-eyed five-year veteran of the store and mother of two; Seung-jun plays a considerably less jovial worker who struggles to deal with her sudden unemployment and the scabs who subsequently replace her.
“La La La at Rock Bottom” (Japan)
Directed by Nobuhiro Yamashita
Subaru Shibutani, lead singer of the super popular Japanese band Kanjani Eight, plays a small-time crook who gets beaten-up and loses his memory. In his subsequent stupor, he discovers that he has an impeccable singing voice and is recruited by a struggling pop band. Of course, as he finds his love for music, he also slowly begins to regain his memory, which conflicts with a budding romance as well as his growing passion for music. However unlikely or absurd the premise sounds (typical Yamashita), the execution works. Like a finely honed pop-song, everything is well-tuned and sharp; Yamashita keeps the comedy, romance and would-be maudlin melodrama all in check; Shibutani is winning and charming.