The New York Asian Film Festival, now in its twelfth year, occupies a valuable niche in the festival world. A co-production of the Film Society of Lincoln Center and Subway Cinema, NYAFF isn’t the sort of festival that takes over a city or neighborhood, being just one of many exciting series housed on the Lincoln Center campus throughout the year. But for those who love Asian cinema and want a filter that lets through not just high-brow art-house titles but also genre, cult, and psychotronic fare, the festival makes for a generous buffet.
While the setting is the dignified Walter Reade Theater, NYAFF goes out of its way to cultivate a lively and accessible vibe. In fact, as I attended the festival last week, I was reminded fondly of the scrappy, laid-back screenings at Baltimore’s beloved underground festival MicroCineFest. Each NYAFF screening begins with an energetic intro and prizes (DVDs, blu-rays, t-shirts) tossed to an enthusiastic audience for whom Johnnie To is a household name and Ip Man generates more excitement than Iron Man. Meanwhile, the Walter Reade’s waiting area was enlivened by a playful art exhibit entitled “Kung Fu Wildstyle,” featuring Bruce Lee-inspired artwork created by hip-hop legend Fab 5 Freddy in collaboration with Hong Kong’s MC Yan.
This year’s NYAFF (ongoing through July 15, if you happen to find yourself in Manhattan) presents approximately 65 features over the course of 18 days, many of them U.S. premieres. Finding its center in emerging titles from around the continent, NYAFF 2013 also includes special focuses on a rediscovered wave of Taiwanese pulp films from the early 80s, a retrospective of work by S. Korean actor Ryoo Seung-beom, a slate of contemporary Filipino independent features, a revival of Enter the Dragon with a post-film discussion on its impact on hip-hop culture, and a lifetime achievement award given to special guest Jackie Chan. I took in a dozen NYAFF films during 4 days in New York, and was greatly impressed with the variety of work on display.
Festival attendees were particularly buzzing about NYAFF’s slate of Taiwanese “black films,” exploitation films from the late 70s into the early 80s that have remained obscure even among cult-film enthusiasts. NYAFF offered a number of these rarely screened films, as well as a documentary about the genre for context, with The Lady Avenger emerging as a crowd favorite. The Taiwanese film I caught, Lee Tso-nam’s Challenge of the Lady Ninja (1981), doesn’t fall squarely into the Taiwanese black-film genre, but is of the same vintage, and proved endlessly entertaining. A fairly standard-issue martial-arts story of honor and revenge magnified to a point of psychedelic absurdity by bizarre characters, deranged dialogue, and a few instances of absolutely insane costume design, the film approached the exquisite, otherworldly strangeness of films like House and The Boxer’s Omen (which readers may remember from MFF 2011, when it was presented as a favorite film by members of Animal Collective). Films like these challenge and expand our expectations of what the art form can be, and it’s always a pleasure to encounter a work so singularly strange.
South Korea was heavily represented in NYAFF, as one would expect from what is arguably the most robust and exciting film industry in the world at this moment. One of the more interesting S. Korean films I took in was Jeong Byeong-gil’s loud, clever, and genre-hopping Confession of Murder. The film opens with a prologue full of moody references to Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder (2003), a masterful thriller about a detective’s long struggle to crack an unsolved serial-killer case. But the many early nods to Bong’s masterpiece prove to be just points of departure, as Confession of Murder quickly fast-forwards to a present-day in which the statute of limitations on a series of gruesome murders has expired, and a smooth character has claimed responsibility for the crimes in a best-selling tell-all autobiography. This central concept admittedly requires substantial suspension of disbelief, yet becomes more and more appropriate as the tone of the film shifts from the subtlety of Zodiac-era David Fincher to the deliriousness of, say, a Face/Off-era John Woo or Snake Eyes-era Brian De Palma. Certainly, the film becomes more cartoonish as it goes along, occasionally to its detriment, but this progression is clearly intentional; the mind games between the central characters remain engaging throughout, and the film’s many action scenes are nothing short of spectacular.
Also of interest was Wang Jing’s Feng Shui, a heavy Mandarin drama about a relentlessly miserable young bride and her long-suffering husband, struggling together to make ends meet on a factory worker’s salary as they raise their young son in a cramped Wuhan apartment. The extremely effective first half of the film, set roughly 20 years in the past, mixes Sirk-ian melodrama (by way of Fassbinder or Haynes) with dark comedy notes that would feel at home in a film by Todd Solondz or Alexander Payne. I wasn’t as convinced by the second half of the film, which features an abrupt jump to the present (coupled with tweaks of tone that reduced the dark comedy and ratcheted up the pathos), but its overall impact lingered effectively and agreeably. I’ll definitely be seeking out more of Wang Jing’s kitchen-sink dramas.
More than anything, the variety on display at NYAFF hammered home how much Baltimore needs more of this type of cultural activity—namely, focused film series that take viewers deeper into the films of particular eras, regions, genres, and directors. The world of film is broad enough as to approach the infinite in terms of any one viewer’s ability to see and process it all—but when we rely on corporate distributors to shed light on a tiny corner of that world, cinema can seem not only finite but stale. Depending solely on these channels to curate our film viewing, we’re frequently not seeing the most entertaining or artistically rich films so much as we are the most marketable films; too often whole nations or even continents go unrepresented, even in the art-house marketplace, as the profit motive gives precedence to the easy and familiar over the challenging and unique.
Festivals like NYAFF—and the year-round creative programming on display at New York institutions like Film Society of Lincoln Center, Anthology Film Archives, Museum of the Moving Image, and BAMcinematek—deserve credit for blowing the lid off that limited view and helping audiences access the bigger picture. As Maryland Film Festival works towards establishing a year-round venue, the impact created by passionately programmed festivals like NYAFF will serve as valuable points of reference. My second year attending NYAFF was every bit as enjoyable and enlightening as the first; cheers to their programmers, staff, and volunteers for a job very well done.