The New York Asian Film Festival (read all our past coverage and reviews here) is one of the highlights of my year, and this year has been almost overwhelming. The number of films I want to see far exceeds the number of hours in the day I have to see them. The most impressive part of this year’s program, in my opinion, is the inclusion of some very rare Taiwanese exploitation films: Challenge of the Lady Ninja, A Life of Ninja, Woman Revenger, Lady Avenger, and the granddaddies of all Taiwanese “social issues” exploitation films, On the Society File of Shanghai and Never too Late to Repent, as well as the documentary, Taiwan Black Movies. Of the lot, I’ve heard of all of them but only ever seen Challenge of the Lady Ninja. Unfortunately, that remained the case throughout the festival, but I am hoping the work the NYAFF crew did in unearthing prints of these films might lead to them eventually finding their way onto DVD somewhere.
My unintentional but not unwelcome focus this year was on the films of Korean action star and self-avowed nightclubber Ryoo Seung Beom. I picked my films this year largely on the mood I happen to be in that day, and that day I happened to be in the mood for a lot of slick, big-budget crime and espionage films. Korea always has plenty to offer in that regard, and so without realizing I was front-loading my festival, I ended up at three of the four films starring him both on-screen and on stage. On stage, he’s a reserved but friendly individual who gives, ehh, not the greatest answers and stories to the interviewer. I appreciate how much he wants to mention DJing and going to clubs and dancing, which seems at least as important to him as making movies. But his reticent to answer any question with anything more complicated than “I don’t really know” or “I love everything” left the hapless interviewer twisting somewhat in the wind.
All of that was made up for by the movies, though. The festival featured four of his films — Arahan, Bloody Ties, The Unjust, and The Berlin File — three of which I had a chance to see. Arahan I’d seen before on DVD, but Bloody Ties and The Berlin File were new to me. I loved both of them, and they might have been tied for my “Best of the Fest” pick had it not been for Forever Love, a film about which I knew nothing other than it was set amid the cheap and energetic Taiwanese film industry of the 1960s. I figured if nothing else, it would have some colorful callbacks to all the low-budget, insane spy and wuxia fantasies I love so dearly (and have not seen enough of). It turned out to be a really fabulous, funny, and heartfelt romantic comedy (not usually my thing) while also being a love letter to the scrappy movies around which it is set. A welcome and much-needed counterpoint to the nihilism and bleakness of the Taiwan Pulp Cinema movies, as good as they may all be.
My Hong Kong representation came in the form of The Last Tycoon and Cold War. Both were good, perhaps very good, but neither was as good as I wanted it to be. The Last Tycoon I covered already in a separate review. The screening was accompanied by an appearance from producer (better known as director) Andrew Lau, who gave a much better interview session than Ryoo Seung-beom. In general, my experience has been that interview sessions with Chinese guests go the best. They are the most expressive and give more involved answers than somewhat reticent and reserved Japanese and Korean guests. Lau talked at length about working with Wong Jing, about being a producer instead of a director for the film, and about how much fun he had experimenting as the film’s director of photography.
I will get to Cold War in a review eventually, but the gist of it is that it’s a movie that wants to play at the level of a Korean movie of the same genre — slick, polished, police-meets-espionage action-thrillers — and it just doesn’t quite measure up to its Korean counterparts. To be fair, very little does these days, but in such close proximity to viewing The Berlin File, Cold War’s flaws were a little more apparent to me. Still, a fun film and it’s weird to think of Aaron Kwok — too-young little pretty boy Aaron Kwok, with his ridiculous concert outfits — as having been around for so long now that he almost qualifies as an elder statesman of Hong Kong cinema (would have easily, except he shares screen-time with Tony Leung Kar-fei and Andy Lau).
I even managed to catch a Japanese movie this time around, as part of the festival’s Japan Cuts program at the Japan Society. I don’t usually see Japanese movies during the festival, mostly because modern Japanese movies and I have very separate tastes. But Thermae Romae seemed like it might be a good time, and hell, at least it wasn’t another sloppy, boring Japanese splatter film. Based on a manga I’ve never read, which was in turn adapted into an anime series I’ve never seen, Thermae Romae is the tale of an ancient Roman public bath architect whose designer’s block is remedied when he accidentally starts traveling through time to modern Japan. Although overlong by perhaps ten minutes or so, it was thoroughly entertaining and had more than a few laugh out loud moments, plus a whole lot of naked old men.
I also had a chance to attend my first NYAFF reception, this one as part of the Taiwanese film program and with directors Hou Chi-jan (Taiwan Black Movies) and Shao Li-shiou (Forever Love). There’s not a whole lot to tell about the event other than both directors spoke briefly about Taiwanese films in general, and there was a lot of really good food.
A great year for the Festival, and a huge amount of fun even though I didn’t get to see half of what I wanted. Odd that I somehow managed it all without seeing any ancient world battle epics, Ip Man movies, or Donnie Yen. I have no idea what sort of gymnastics I must have done to have that happen. Overall though, fantastic. New York Asian Film Festival gets bigger every year, but despite that, they still manage to maintain the feel of a very small, personal festival. I love their ongoing commitment to screening a mix of movies from across Asia, from multiple decades, and both blockbuster and low-budget. I wished I had a chance to catch more of the Taiwanese and Filipino films that were showcased, but you can only do what you can do. And to walk away from NYAFF 2013 with three films I liked a lot (Cold War, Last Tycoon, Arahan), three films I loved (Berlin File, Bloody Ties, Thermae Romae) and one I will put at the top of my “best in recent memory” list (Forever Love) — well, that wasn’t a bad way to spend a couple of weeks.