Celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, the New York Asian Film Festival finds itself at a crossroads. The 2021 lineup, which features more than 60 films, is its largest ever. However, the current festival is still taking place under the cloud of COVID.
Only a small portion of the lineup will play theatrically at Lincoln Center during its first week. It’s also grappling with what an Asian film festival means. The decline of theatrical exhibition under the pandemic means that if more Asian films could regularly find a large audience in the US following the Best Picture Oscar win and commercial success of “Parasite,” we haven’t been able to test it, although signs suggest that it’s quite possible. (The anime “Demon Slayer: Mugen Train” was the most popular film of 2020 worldwide, including a $47.7 million gross in North America.) Racism against Asians and Asian-Americans, long swept under the rug, rose and became increasingly visible as politicians blamed China for the COVID virus with no concern for the effects of their rhetoric. In response, this year’s festival includes films made in the US by Asian-Americans for the first time. The opening night film, “Welcome to Mogadishu,” also started playing theatrically in the US on Aug. 6. One of the most exciting parts of the festival is the focus on Hong Kong filmmaker Ann Hui, featuring her ‘80s classics “Boat People” and “The Story of Woo Viet,” and “Keep Rolling,” a new documentary profile of her. However, it’s pretty light on LGBTQ-themed films this year.
“Babi” uses the true incident of a 16-year-old boy’s death as an allegory for the ethnic divisions and many social problems of Malayasia. The boy’s fatal fall was witnessed by many students, yet each of the film’s major characters has a different perspective on it. The school is split into Chinese, Indian and Malay factions. Directed by Namewee (a musician who also wrote and performed the hip-hop song whose music video plays over the end credits), “Babi” is a cry of rage with zero interest in subtlety. Only 61 minutes long, it draws on “Rashomon” to tell its basic story from three students’ views, with each view of the deadly dive leading to more damning conclusions. Given the righteous anger behind it and the fact that Namewee was arrested for the film, it feels churlish to suggest that its bluntness doesn’t help it. But the plot plays as a rundown of social issues: bullying, police brutality, the fact that most scholarships go to Malay students, the difficulties of being a gay teenager, pedophilia. (“Babi” spends more effort on showing one teacher sexually abusing his male students than developing the hints of romance between some of the boys.) The editing gets confusing, while the tone of perpetual riot grows numbing — the same scenes of students running wild and being attacked by the police keep being repeated. Made with a cast of non-professional actors, it shows. While an obvious passion project whose director has suffered a real cost for making it, “Babi” plays like an unsatisfyingly expanded short.
“As We Like It” starts with a great concept but botches the execution. Set in a hallucinatory near-future Taipei (with a ban on the Internet), it restages Shakespeare’s comedy “As You Like It” with an all-female cast. The end credits dedicate the film both to the British playwright and “the patriarchy that would not allow female actors onstage.” “As We Like It” engages in gender play, with a drag king aesthetic — many minor characters sport fake mustaches drawn on with ink — and a celebration of androgyny. Whether playing men or women, some of the actors sport the identical boyish haircut. Rosalind (Kou Hsueh-Fu) travels around Taipei, looking for her father. She meets Orlando (Aggie Hsieh) and falls in love with him. But she decides to test Orlando’s attraction by dressing as a man and calling her Roosevelt. The stories of three other couples are woven through the film.
“As We Like It” could’ve been a campy delight. But it aims for a style above directors Hung I-Chen and Muni Wei’s skill set. It’s structured like a video game, with characters progressing from level to level as onscreen graphics appear during fight scenes. It alters the Taipei skyline to give the city a special appearance and weaves animation into some scenes for an unreal look. Bisexual lighting fills the film’s spaces, but so does every other form of brightly colored light. But it all looks a bit cheap. One good idea — an earwax cleaning that doubles as a metaphor for sex, complete with orgasmic moans as the ear is penetrated more deeply — is not improved by being cut with another pair of lovers going through a car wash full of white foam. In the end, “As We Like It” is quite cheerful, offering a vision of a future where love is more important than gender and everyone’s a little bit queer. But it’s compromised by striving so desperately to be hip. Despite the digs at the Internet, “As We Like It” assumes it’s necessary to make Shakespeare relevant by injecting a visual language inspired by video games, manga, and anime without having the craft to pull it off.
“Babi” plays at SVA at 6:30 on August 20. “As We Like It” is available to stream through Film at Lincoln Center starting August 17.
2021 NEW YORK ASIAN FILM FESTIVAL | Film at Lincoln Center and SVA | Aug. 6-22 | For the full lineup and schedule, go to the festival’s website: https://www.nyaff.org/nyaff21/films