The New York Asian Film Festival Grows up — but Just a Little


Though barely a teenager now, could the customarily provocative 13th New York Asian Film Festival be showing signs of mellowing with age? A cursory glance at the 60 features in its three-week-plus schedule reveals broader, more populist picks (like opening night’s Hong Kong franchise thriller Overheard 3, or the Taiwanese centerpiece Kano, a 1930s-set, inspirational baseball biopic), which could also smack of global filmmaking trends. Still, in contrast to another goddamn Hollywood summer of lowest-common-denominator soullessness, NYAFF’s unique pop sensibilities (along with sidebar focuses on Hong Kong’s cinematic resurgence, Korean actor Lee Jung-jae, and the late Chinese film titan Sir Run Run Shaw) are a cool reprieve if you dive for pearls.

A spiky, desert-wasteland thriller with anarchic twists and fatalistic humor reminiscent of U-Turn, as well as the Coen Brothers and John Dahl in neo-noir mode, No Man’s Land is exceptional not just for its entertainingly unhinged action, but that it was ever released at all. (Crazy Racer director Ning Hao shot then recut the film three times over four years after it was inexplicably censored in its native China.) Arriving in the gorgeously bleached-out Gobi panorama to defend a menacing poacher of endangered falcons, cocky metropolitan lawyer Pan Xiao (Xu Zheng) greedily coerces his client to give over his red Mustang for the drive home.

There’s an equally wicked accomplice waiting to reclaim the car down that only, lonely road out of town (cue an Ennio Morricone whistle), and between here and there, poor Pan’s excessive comeuppance arrives at the hands of rough-and-tumble truck drivers, sleazy gas-station extortionists, a desperate prostitute, and assorted amoral fiends. It’s similar in its allegorical violence to Jia Zhangke’s sick-society critique A Touch of Sin; its ambitions may not be as intellectual or naturalistic, but its stunt choreography and chase sequences are strangely more visceral, and Ning is willing to crack the bleakest of jokes. What else can the disenfranchised do but laugh in the face of corruption and chaos?

Shanghai-born Taiwanese screen legend Jimmy Wong Yu (star of the 1967 wuxia classic The One-Armed Swordsman, screening in the Shaw Brothers tribute) will be presented with this year’s Lifetime Achievement Award, but retirement is not on the 71-year-old’s docket. In director Chung Mong-hong’s spellbinding psychological horror Soul (Taiwan’s foreign-language Oscar contender), the veteran actor gives a potent yet minimalist performance — all facial tics, gruff sarcasm, and off-kilter timing — as Wang, an aging orchard farmer with a demented view on familial loyalty. His sushi-chef son, Ah-Chuan (Joseph Chang), collapses at work, so Wang takes him into his isolated Taichung cabin, though we suspect the son’s mind is unraveling from fragmented flashes of chimerical imagery (moths noisily fluttering, a filleted fish still wriggling). Ah-Chuan’s grown sister, Aya, arrives to care for her bro, but without any build-up, he murders her off-camera; spookily, Ah-Chuan tells his father that his son is no longer here, so he “moved in” when he saw an empty vessel.

Mentally ill or possessed by a demon, it’s unclear, but Wang accepts his son’s condition, locks him in the shed, and begins to act just as gruesomely in shushing nosy outsiders (his son-in-law, the local sheriff, Ah-Chuan’s former schoolmate who is now a policeman). Beholden to the film’s rhythmically abstruse editing and dreamily expressive camerawork, shot by Chung under a pseudonym, the lines between fantasy and reality aren’t just blurred, they’re hacked to pulp, as are the distinctions between the spiritual and conspiratorial. Is it poetry or depravity? The answers are too abstract to gauge, but its father-son dynamics are more poignant than any artsploitation slasher has a right to be.

Beginning July 10, NYAFF co-presents some of its Nipponese premieres with sister fest Japan Cuts, including Sion Sono’s decadently loony ode to genre cinema, Why Don’t You Play in Hell? and Kankuro Kudo’s sweetly crude “self-fellatio” comedy, Maruyama, the Middle Schooler. A highlight of both series, as well as of modern whodunit storytelling, is the playfully clever murder mystery The Snow White Murder Case. Deceptively more straightforward and less zany than his sci-fi punk comedy Fish Story or wry conspiracy thriller Golden Slumber, director Yoshihiro Nakamura’s savvy adaptation of the crime novel by Kanae Minato (Confessions) begins with the stabbed, burnt corpse of cosmetics-company cutie Noriko (Nanao).

Fame-hungry but prone to cutting corners, untested TV production-house director Akahoshi (Go Ayano) posts reviews of ramen joints and just about every waking thought on Twitter. When he gets a juicy tip from an ex-girlfriend who worked with Noriko that the victim had a jealous enemy in co-worker Miki (Inoue Mao), Akahoshi picks up the thread and investigates anyone remotely connected to this would-be murderer who has suddenly disappeared, tweeting his each revelation without fact-checking. The chain of events does appear to add up, as reported by coworkers, Miki’s former boyfriend (who was stolen handily by Noriko), even Miki’s parents, and the Twittersphere is suddenly blowing up with its own rash, entitled, very public judgments, which don’t seem much more hysterical than what the tabloids report.

As Akahoshi ventures further down the clickhole toward solving the homicide, posting celebratory selfies that will haunt him later, the film makes a Rashomonic flip to the vulnerable Miki’s perspective that makes every social-media participant (and viewer) an accomplice in a grotesque witch hunt. Shot with subtlety instead of flair to flatten the procedural-like stream of information, the film’s up-to-the-second commentary is as precise as the final left-field twist is gloriously messy. The Internet exposes the truth, tweets a random troll. The Internet falsely accuses, vomits the next one down the feed. Refresh, rinse, repeat.