Annual festival highlights a continent’s creative complexity beyond Bruce Lee and “Godzilla”
Asian films are ultra-violent and perverse. If not, they consist of five-minute takes in which the camera stands still while a character sits around doing nothing.
Despite the popularity among American audiences of Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and Zhang Yimou’s “Hero,” such received “wisdom” about recent Asian cinema runs rampant.
The false impressions persist, perhaps, because Americans only get to see a tiny portion of the vast continent’s cinematic output, due, in part, to the tendency of distributors and film festival programmers to cater to Western audiences’ pre-existing tastes. The appetite for graphic violence is universal, nearly insatiable, and art house cinema’s more venturesome projects typically garner small followings. By and large, Meg Ryan fans aren’t likely to check out a romantic comedy from Hong Kong or South Korea, even when they may well be recycled into Hollywood hits.
This year’s New York Asian Film Festival, the largest programmed thus far by Subway Cinema, should help dispel negative stereotypes about Asian cinema and establish the universal cinematic integrity of many of the films produced by that industry. To be sure, movies like “Three…Extremes,” a horror anthology featuring a soon-to-be-infamous short film about a woman who makes nourishing dumplings from aborted fetuses, appear in this year’s offerings, as does “Godzilla: Final Wars.”
That, however, is not the whole picture. The festival also includes original, out-of-the-mold films like “Princess Raccoon,” a counterpart to the blockbuster Italian drama “Cinema Paradiso;” “Electric Shadows,” set during China’s Cultural Revolution; inspirational sports tales (“Crying Fist” and “Marathon”); police comedies (“Crazy ‘n The City”); and horror films, including one in which Thai lesbians fight monsters (“P.”)
Japanese cinema comes to the forefront this year, claiming 14 of the 30 Subway features, including Takashi Miike’s excellent “Three…Extremes” contribution, “Box.” A special focus called “Tetsuo: Iron Man” about director Shinya Tsukamoto includes two films made by him––“A Snake of June” and “Vital”––and one in which he acts, Takeshi Shimizu’s “Marebito.”
Fresh from its Cannes premiere, veteran Japanese director Suzuki Seijun’s musical “Princess Raccoon” is a puzzler. A warm tale of inter-species love, it describes the desire of a human prince for a tanuki (shape-shifting raccoon) princess, played by Chinese actress Zhang Ziyi. Following the narrative isn’t nearly as enthralling as taking in the costumes and production design. In a few places, “Princess Raccoon” feels deliberately amateurish, utilizing props covered in aluminum foil and hand-drawn sets, but it looks exquisite nonetheless. A celebration of theatricality and artifice, the occasional glimpse of real exteriors only makes the film deliciously more eccentric. After a while, Seijun’s penchant to dazzle gets wearisome, but it’s refreshing for a film to sag under the weight of too many ideas rather than suffering from too few.
Light on plot but long on witty asides, speeches to the audience and animated interludes, Tetsuya Nakashima’s “Kamikaze Girls” is a playful ode to female friendship. (The same theme is depicted in “Samaritan Girl” and “Hana and Alice.”) Cheerfully innocent, it’s a primer in Japanese fashion trends. Momoko (Kyoko Fukada) dresses in Lolita-style, with lots of childlike frills, but she’s no shrinking violet or objectified sex object; her would-be butch “Yanki” friend Ichiko (Anna Tsuchiya), who belongs to an all-female biker gang, is more innocent than she appears.
Nakashima knows how far to go without becoming cloyingly cute. Good American films about teenage girls are rare––generally, they’re either pure fluff or sensationalistic exposés of drugged-out, oversexed kids languishing in a moral wasteland. On the other hand, one might be too busy laughing at “Kamikaze Girls” to notice how cleverly it addresses the rewards and costs of individualism.
Even though Lu Chuan’s “Kekexili” is based on a true story, it has the sensibility of a Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick.” In the 1990s, Tibetan antelope poaching became big business, driving the once-thriving species close to extinction. In response, volunteer patrols took up arms against poachers. (Werner Herzog might jump at the chance to make a documentary about the same subject matter.)
“Kekexili” follows a Beijing journalist on one of these harrowing forays. The characters are mostly silent ciphers and the protagonist feels more like a plot device than a real person, although he’s modeled after one, but the landscape is the film’s real star. Captured in glorious Cinemascope, it’s eye-catching but rarely inviting, filled with impeccably framed shots of men struggling through heavy wind or sinking in quicksand. The environmentalist message is blunt, but “Kekexili” doesn’t romanticize nature or minimize its dangers. Often extremely grim, the story has a real-life happy ending––in 1997, the Chinese government turned Tibet’s Kekexili region into a protected wildlife preserve, leading to a resurgence in the antelope population.
The first Indian film about a gay man with AIDS, Onir’s “My Brother Nikhil,” is so well intentioned that panning it makes me feel bad. Nevertheless, it’s essentially a feature-length public service announcement. A handsome swimming champion, Nikhil (Sanjay Suri) hides his boyfriend from his parents, who would like to force him into a quick marriage. His life turns upside down when he tests positive for HIV; under the island of Goa’s medieval laws, he’s immediately arrested and confined to a rat-infested sanatorium. Anyone who has seen the 1990s film “Philadelphia” starring Tom Hanks as a man who dies from AIDS is familiar with Nikhil’s fate, yet noble sentiments don’t always make for powerful filmmaking. The pacing plods, especially in the half hour before Nikhil’s diagnosis.
Instead of generating real pathos, Onir tugs at the audience’s heartstrings with montages set to sappy ballads. However, the film has genuinely powerful ideas––juxtaposing Nikhil’s final years with the post-mortem thoughts of his family and friends. These sequences supply an emotional force “My Brother Nikhil” otherwise squanders.
“Kamikaze Girls” will be released theatrically this fall, as will “Three…Extremes” and “Vital,” but the festival may be New Yorkers’ only chance to catch “Princess Raccoon,” “Kekexili,” “My Brother Nikhil” and most of its other features.