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7 Must-See Movies at the 2018 New York Asian Film Festival

From a Japanese porn biopic to a social drama set in the Philippines’ underground rap scene, NYAFF is back with the festival's best lineup yet.

Inarguably this country’s best annual showcase of new Asian cinema, the New York Asian Film Festival is back with a vengeance, and its Savage Seventeenth edition might be the best one yet. Not only is the 2018 program one of the biggest that NYAFF has ever put together, but it’s also likely the most varied and comprehensive, as the lineup includes 58 films of all shapes and sizes.

From the second-highest-grossing blockbuster in Chinese history to a Malaysian horror film that was shot in 2006 and banned until now — from a lewd biopic about a Japanese pornographer to a social drama set in the Philippines’ underground rap community — the NYAFF 2018 slate is as varied as it is thrilling.

While American audiences will have to wait a little while longer to feast their eyes on recent Cannes breakouts like “Burning,” “Shoplifters,” and “Long Day’s Journey into Night,” it’s worth noting that many — most, in fact — of these NYAFF films may never get another chance to screen in this country. The current state of the market for subtitled fare is dire, and tons of exciting work (particularly the kind that might be too strange or specific to earn international recognition) is being denied a chance to find an audience.

While niche distribution outfits like Well Go USA continue to do yeoman’s work by releasing some Asian films mere weeks after their international premieres (including NYAFF 2018 movies like “Paradox” and “Operation Red Sea”), and Netflix has started to catch some of the stuff that falls through the cracks, the industry’s current state has made festivals like this one more important than ever. At a time when art seems borderless, you increasingly need to sit in a dark room with a bunch of like-minded seekers to remember how much is really out there.

NYAFF 2018 will take place from June 29th – July 15th, and is presented by The Film Society of Lincoln Center and Subway Cinema. Before clicking over for tickets and a look at the full line-up, scroll down to see our list of the seven most exciting movies at this year’s fest.

“The Bold, the Corrupt, and the Beautiful”

“The Bold, the Corrupt, and the Beautiful”

There’s a lot to like about Yang Ya-che’s sprawling crime drama about a ruthless Taiwanese mafiosa and her two daughters (one a conniving femme fatale, and the other a deceptively innocent teen), but one of the best things about “The Bold, the Corrupt, and the Beautiful” is that it offers a useful template for how to revive male tropes with female characters.

This isn’t a simple remake of a pre-existing story that just swaps out men for women and hopes for the best; it’s a scintillating new tale of deceit and corruption that takes a familiar milieu and redresses it from the ground up. The story starts with a million things you’ve seen before — including murder, intrigue, and even a dash of “Romeo and Juliet” — and mashes them together into a fierce and (sometimes too) knotted saga that feels as though it could never exist without these particular characters. Add in killer performances by Kara Hui, Wu Ke-xi, and Vicky Chen, and you’ve got a movie so effective that some stars will be clamoring for an English-language remake.

The Bold, the Corrupt, and the Beautiful” screens at Walter Reade Theater on July 5th at 2:15pm.

“Dynamite Graffiti”

“Dynamite Graffiti”

It wouldn’t be NYAFF without an epic, nudity-filled biopic about a famous pornographer. Director Tominaga Masanori (“Sutekina Dynamite Scandal”) turns “Dynamite Graffiti” into a seedy ride through the life and times of Suei Akira, who survived a combustible childhood to become one of modern Japan’s most notorious purveyors of smut. Covering every wild turn in its subject’s (ongoing) life, Tominaga’s film doesn’t believe in private parts.

It starts with a flashback to the time when Suei’s mother used dynamite to commit double suicide with her lover (her splattered remains give the movie its title), and continues from there as the young deviant — played by rising star Emote Tasuku) — lands an editorship at the “Playboy”-esque “New Self.” “Design exposes yourself,” Suei contends, and “Dynamite Graffiti” makes good on that idea, mining the iconoclast’s magazine experiences for a funny and revealing portrait of an unconventional artist, as well as the hedonistic economy that shaped his talents.

Dynamite Graffiti” screens at the Walter Reade Theater on June 29th at 6:30pm

“End of Summer”

“End of Summer”

It almost feels like overkill that NYAFF has programmed “End of Summer” to play on a summer Friday afternoon, because that’s exactly the vibe conjured up by Zhuo Quan’s sun-dappled and bucolic family drama (though “drama” is too aggressive a term for the conflict that drives this gentle little movie). Set during the 1998 World Cup — and also in the leafy, verdant Chinese region of Jiangnan, which looks like a chorus of cicadas sounds — “End of Summer” introduces us to a little boy named Gu Xiaoyang  (Rong Zishan), who dreams of playing soccer. Alas, his school teacher dad (Zhang Songwen) refuses to let his son indulge in such frivolous pursuits, even if the adult is indulging in frivolous pursuits of his own (his mid-life crisis is blossoming into a crush on a new faculty member). Lucky for our pint-sized protagonist, his elderly grandfather (Ku Pao-ming) also loves the beautiful game, and is willing to coach him on the sly.

Best enjoyed as a nice aperitif before a long weekend spent enjoying the festival’s darker fare, “End of Summer” offers a gentler approach to many of the major concerns that grip contemporary Chinese cinema. The film’s relaxed pacing and relatively low stakes allow it to broach urban renewal and the deterioration of the nuclear family with a novocaine touch. It’s damning and sweet in equal measure — a pleasant afternoon at the movies, but not a naïve one.

End of Summer” screens at the Walter Reade Theater on July 6th at 3:45pm.

“House of the Rising Sons”

“House of the Rising Sons”

The most propulsive film of a festival that’s packed to the gills with action movies, Antony Chan’s music-driven memoir is an electric ride through the director’s own time in the legendary teen-idol band, The Wynners (which formed in 1973, and performed as recently as 2014). Unfolding like a hyper-adrenalized Hong Kong riff on “That Thing You Do!,” this live-action comic book of a movie ricochets through 40 years of rock history as it follows a loose-knit crew of teen nuisances as they unlock their inner stars and quickly go supernova.

“House of the Rising Sons” — a riff on The Animals’ “House of the Rising Sun,” the opening chords of which are played roughly a billion times in this movie — rampages out of the gate like a raging bull, and doesn’t stop rocking for the better part of its running time. It’s clichéd as can be, but Chan’s personal attachment to the material (and the palpable electric buzz he channels by revisiting these moments) sells you on scenes you already know by heart. Things get a bit disorienting in the second half, when the bandmates all scatter in separate directions and Chan refuses to slow down, but there’s always a great song or a slow-motion fight scene(?) around the corner to keep you engaged.

While pretty accessible overall, “House of the Rising Sons” is clearly geared towards people who aren’t learning about The Wynners for the first time. Too fun to be ignored, but too specific to ever earn legitimate U.S. distribution, this is exactly the kind of film that NYAFF exists to bring us.

House of the Rising Sons” screens at the Walter Reade Theater on July 2nd at 6:30pm

“Operation Red Sea”

“Operation Red Sea”

The second-highest-grossing film of all time at the Chinese box office, Dante Lam’s operatic blockbuster is essential viewing for anyone who wants to understand the kind of spectacle that’s selling overseas. Billed as “China’s first modern naval film” and presented in commemoration of the 90th anniversary of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, this hyper-nationalistic action extravaganza is part “G.I. Joe” and part “Black Hawk Down,” but it’s all in service to the glory of China’s fighting forces.

A gripping prologue helps to set the stage and fully untether the film from reality, as members of the Jiaolong Assault Team (essentially SEAL Team Six) snipe a crew of Somali pirates from a helicopter in the middle of the ocean. From there, the action relocates to the fictional (and highly unstable) Middle Eastern country of Yewaire, where the Jialong squad is tasked with evacuating Chinese citizens and defusing a dirty bomb. A seemingly endless street fight ensues, full of a zillion explosions and all the semi-decent CG you could ever want. “Operation Red Sea” might be a bit too much for anyone who doesn’t get off on this kind of military posturing, but the film also offers a compelling glimpse at a near-future where China has replaced America as the world’s policemen. This is the Michael Bay movie of tomorrow.

Operation Red Sea” screens at the Walter Reade Theater on June 30th at 8:30pm.

“The Return”

“The Return”

One of the very best and most resonant films playing at this year’s festival, “The Return” is a welcome reminder that NYAFF isn’t just about schoolgirl zombies, yakuza assassins, and frantic soft-core sex comedies. The fest has always honored the full emotional (and cultural) spectrums of what these national cinemas have to offer, and the 2018 crop is full of more contemplative delights like “Counters,” “Midnight Bus,” and “On Happiness Road.”

But of these such films, Malene Choi’s debut feature has the best chance of finding an international audience. Seamlessly blending documentary and fiction modes until the movie’s true nature becomes as elusive as that of its lead character, “The Return” follows a Korean-born, Dutch-raised woman named Karoline (Karoline Sofie Lee) as she travels to Seoul in search of her birth mother. Staying at a Seoul guest house with a handful of other displaced adoptees who are also looking for their original home, Karoline investigates the morality of a system that severs people from where they came from, and examines the basic nature and pliability of what makes us who we are.

Shot like a stilted feature but structured around casual encounters that seem to be found rather than premeditated, “The Return” coerces you into assuming that you’re watching a documentary that Karoline is directing about herself — it’s an assumption that Choi toys with until the very end, since the actual director uses a number of compelling meta-textual devices to distance herself from her own experience. We all get to benefit from that perspective, as the film thaws into an enigmatic, self-conflicted, and powerfully honest portrait of belonging.

The Return” screens at the Walter Reade Theater on July 7th at 12:30pm

“Wrath of Silence”

“Wrath of Silence”

Hot off his evocatively titled debut, “The Coffin in the Mountain,” Xin Yukun delivers a bleak murder-mystery that cements his reputation as one of modern China’s most exciting directors. “Wrath of Silence” finds Xin applying the severity of a Denis Villeneuve movie (major “Prisoners” vibes here) to the social crises of a Jia Zhangke drama. The story of a mute laborer (Song Yang) who returns to his remote mining town in search of his missing son and finds himself in a bloody fight to the death with a domineering business tycoon (“A Touch of Sin” star Jiang Wu), this merciless indictment of China’s permissive corruption is as scathing a film as any that has ever squeaked past the country’s censors.

Any movie could turn a meat-slicer into a killer weapon, but “Wrath of Silence” is the kind of crime saga that dares to wreak havoc with the lamb slivers the machine serves up. Needless to say, Xin won’t send you home feeling hungry.

Wrath of Silence” screens at the Walter Reade Theater on July 9th, 6:30pm

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