Seeing everything at the New York Asian Film Festival is easier said than done: due to the sheer scope of the programming, it’s impossible unless one has a press pass and about 2-3 weeks of spare time. Although we couldn’t make it to every screening, we were able to attend dozens of y showings from each of the countries represented by the festival. Here we see the non-competition films from Hong Kong and Taiwan. The eclecticism of the films here, ranging from slapstick splatter-horror to understated family drama, help give a fuller picture of two of the most vibrant film industries in the world.
Mental illness has long been a favorite subject for filmmakers. But films about their effects, the toll they take on sufferers and their loved ones, are few and far between. Of these, Wong Chun’s Mad World is one of the best in recent memory. The film follows Tung (Shawn Yue), a thirtysomething young man with bipolar disorder whose manic outbursts cost him a lucrative financial analyst career and his marriage to Jenny (Charmaine Fong), the love of his life. Even worse, he was accused of murdering his abusive, invalid mother while acting as her live-in caretaker. He didn’t, of course, but that didn’t stop the court from blaming him. He was, after all, a mentally ill loony. As the film begins, he checks out of a mental institution after a court-ordered one-year sentence in lieu of jailtime for his mother’s death. He gets picked up by his estranged father (Eric Tsang), a truck-driver living in a squalid one-room apartment in a crowded tenement. The film watches as these two strangers try and reconnect after years of separation. Tung’s father deals with prejudiced tenants convinced that the apparently cured Tung might snap at any moment and kill them. But Tung has it worse. His bipolar disorder and hospitalization has marked him a pariah, isolating him from old friends and keeping him from finding employment. Tung stops taking his serotonin, and soon all the old symptoms, all the old memories of his fiancé and his cruel mother come rushing back in a flood.
Mad World is a film of excruciating emotional violence—even more than any number of gory horror films, it’s mentally exhausting to watch. The film is a cavalcade of little moments of rejection and cruelty. Anonymous strangers record Tung’s public breakdowns and post them on the internet. People gossip behind his back. Potential employers dismiss him during interviews for having been hospitalized. The big, dramatic moments are fewer and farther between, but when they happen they land with the force of an atom bomb. The other tenement residents offer father and son an ultimatum: either the two of you move out or all of us will. In a moment of agony, Tung’s father begs him to please “be normal.” And in the most excruciating scene in the film, Jenny breaks down in a church service she invited Tung to and screams at him that he ruined her life.
But despite being a devastating film, it’s an ultimately hopeful one. Even more than the effects of mental illness, the central theme of Mad World is that of responsibility towards loved ones, a theme central to modern Chinese culture where upward economic mobility has so isolated various generations from each other that the government passed a law requiring all adult children to see after their parents’ welfare. Before her untimely death, Jenny tried to convince Tung to send his mother to a nursing home. She was sick and they had just bought a new house and were planning their first child. It would just make things easier. But the devotedly filial Tung refused, becoming her caretaker at the risk of his own well-being. And as the film continues, Tung’s father faces a similar dilemma: should he send Tung to another institution? Again, it would certainly be the easiest solution…for him. But would it be the best thing for Tung, a man desperate to reconnect with his old life and live like a normal person again? Neither option is easy, nor is either preferable. Both would require great sacrifice from them both. As with so many great films, Chun’s solution rests on a foundation of empathy, not practicality. It’s a lesson desperately needed, both in China and the world at large.
Zombiology: Enjoy Yourself Tonight
Alan Lo’s preposterously titled zombie apocalypse movie Zombiology: Enjoy Yourself Tonight has one thing going for it: a totally unique, totally original explanation for the genesis of the zombie virus and its outbreak. Basically, a giant potentially extraterrestrial chicken monster invades the slums and back-alleys of Hong Kong and blasts unsuspecting victims with magic eggs which a) turn them into zombies, or b) kill them instantly by blasting all the flesh and meat off their heads until only a charbroiled skull remains. Other than that, Lo’s chaotic horror-comedy extravaganza brings nothing new to the table. If anything, it’s a shallow rip-off of Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead (2004): two twenty/thirtysomething shmucks find themselves trapped in the middle of a zombie invasion and seeking safety while one-by-one their friends and family members die off. But whereas Wright’s film had humor, legitimate horror, characters we care about, and one of the best uses of Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” in cinematic history, Zombiology only has a generalized surrealism to it. While best friends Lung (Michael Ning) and Chi-Yeung (Louis Cheung) struggle to barricade themselves inside Lung’s adoptive mother’s abandoned Cantonese opera house, they get waylaid by a trio of perpetually perky cheerleaders, a lovesick food deliveryman, and a rabid pack of real estate salesmen. These salesmen, by the way, aren’t infected zombies; they’re just really, really, really eager to give you a great deal on some premium property. (Clearly this joke lands better in its native Hong Kong.) And, of course, there’s the giant chicken monster.
The entire film hinges on Lung’s personal journey from emotionally immature slacker to stalwart hero, and he achieves this largely through (or in spite of) grandiose fantasies of himself as a manga superhero known as the Dragon of Heaven, a champion who can defeat any foe as long as he has faith in his own powers. It’s a fine angle to take with such a superficially dull, listless character, but it leads to one of the most infuriating fake-out climaxes of the entire festival. Not that one will feel betrayed by an otherwise good movie. Zombiology doesn’t have the preposterous gore, over-the-top death scenes, or self-aware silliness of the truly great zombie movies where the characters know they’re in a zombie movie. (The reigning champion of that sub-genre is still Ruben Fleischer’s Zombieland .) It’s obvious that Lo tried to compensate with sincere emotional pathos, but it’s hard to take such scenes seriously when there’s a character stomping around in a giant chicken suit.
Mon Mon Monsters
The scariest part of my experience watching Giddens Ko’s Taiwanese horror film Mon Mon Monsters wasn’t the movie itself, but the audience. Specifically, I was terrified by how frequently my fellow audience members laughed at this film, easily the most misanthropic, cruel, and nihilistic one I’ve seen all year. Some of it was nervous laughter, which is understandable when you watch a movie about four high school bullies who kidnap a preteen flesh-eating ghoul, tie her in an abandoned school basement, and slowly torture and mutilate her for nearly two hours. But much of the laughter wasn’t nervous, it was sincere. It was sincere when protagonist Lin Shu-wei (Den Yu-kai), a bullied straight-A student who inadvertently befriends his tormentors, repeatedly chickens out from yanking the young girl’s teeth out with a pair of pliers. It was sincere when their cruel, neglectful teacher fire-hoses about three gallons of bloody viscera out her vagina in the middle of a school basketball game after the bullies’ leader Ren-Hao (Kent Tsai) spikes her coffee with the ghoul’s blood. And it was sincere when the bullies “feed” the girl with vials of blood by spraying it all over her weeping face. By the end, I realized that I wanted nothing to do with anyone who laughed at any part of it.
But as I reflected on the film, I realized that might have been Ko’s true intention. The film challenges its viewers to remain passive spectators or to join in, acknowledge the humor, and become bullies themselves. For there are many scenes that are shot to be deliberately funny, particularly a scene right out of a Stephen Chow film where Lin preposterous excuses to not drink beer he thinks Ren-Hao may have spiked with ghoul blood are foiled by another bully miraculously yanking the things he requests instead out of thin air. The scenes may be comical, but the film is deathly serious: it dares you to laugh.
That might sound like a stretch, but after watching thousands of movies and writing hundreds of reviews, I’ve gotten to a place where I can generally tell the difference between directorial incompetence and directorial intent. Mon Mon Monsters is a fine-tuned, grotesquely gory test of audience endurance. It’s hatefulness is stunning, but that hatefulness is deliberate. Ko has a point he wants to make with this film, and he makes it uncomfortably well.
The Road to Mandalay
From the opening title card we know Midi Z’s The Road to Mandalay has lofty artistic ambitions—few films borrow names from European poems if they don’t want to be taken seriously, even more so if the title is chosen ironically. Rudyard Kipling’s Mandalay is about a British soldier dreaming of the far-off climes and cities of Asia. But Midi Z’s film follows two very different travelers to the “exotic East,” Wang Lianqing (Ke-Xi Wu) and Guo (Kai Ko), two Burmese refugees fleeing violence. After meeting on a bus smuggling them into Bangkok, the two begin a disastrous and doomed relationship as they struggle to readjust to their new homeland.
Told primarily from Lianqing’s perspective, the film reflects the isolation and loneliness of its characters through long, static takes that emphasis silence and stillness over action. Taking a cue from structuralist filmmakers, in particular Chantal Akerman, the film sits and watches as Lianqing goes about mind-numbingly tedious day jobs. We watch her scrub through piles of dishes in a greasy restaurant where she makes 83 cents an hour, we watch her strain and stretch long rolls of cotton in a textile factory. Even potentially joyful occasions such as Lianqing reuniting with and sharing bowls of noodles with other Burmese friends who snuck into Thailand are drenched in a drained, anhedonic stupor. We sit and watch as they mumble idle chit-chat about finding work in between noisy slurps and swallows.
Several times Guo tries to talk her into getting better jobs outside Bangkok where they can make more money. But Lianqing refuses. Her dream is to stay in the city, get fake ID papers, and settle into a comfortable, upwardly-mobile urban life. As she bribes her way through Thailand’s corrupt government bureaucracy, a growing fury begins to simmer in our hearts for the petty injustices and indignities forced upon refugees fleeing violence: crooked business owners who prey on undocumented workers, greedy officials who extort immigrants seeking official documents, and the cold-hearted realities of industrial capitalism that views them all as disposable robots. Yet that’s the film’s failing: the fury we feel never gets beyond that initial simmer due to the film’s mind-numbing detachment. Miki Z further ruins his chances for profundity with an unnecessarily cruel, unexpectedly violent denouement that seems added as an afterthought, almost as if hepanicked that nobody would remember the film if it didn’t have a shocking ending.
The Village of No Return
Chen Yu-hsun’s Taiwanese film The Village of No Return is a case study of a film that bites off more than it can chew. Crammed somewhere inside its near two hour running time is a taut, brilliant, and thoroughly entertaining comedy, rich with bizarre yet endearing characters and ingenious comic set pieces. But they’re all shoved to the side by too many plot threads to keep straight. There’s simply too much going on here, and when combined with the film’s ceaseless zaniness, it becomes exhausting.
Of all the plots in The Village of No Return the most significant revolves around Fortune Tien (Qianyuan Wang), a sleazy Taoist monk who arrives one day in Desire Village, a secluded community trapped in the eighteenth century threatened by railroad developers. He comes bearing a bizarre bronze helmet decorated with seahorses known as a “Worry Ridder” that can remove peoples’ bad memories. The device has an unfortunate side effect: when cleansed of their worries and anxieties, patients become completely susceptible to suggestion. He quickly “worry rids” the whole village, brainwashing them into his doting slaves. But Tien has bigger plans that just seizing their wealth and the love of Autumn (Qi Shu), their most beautiful woman: he conscripts them into a work force tasked with digging up a legendary treasure located somewhere beneath their village. And before long, the inquisitive Autumn realizes that Tien might not be the hero he claims to be.
But Fortune Tien doesn’t actually show up in the movie until about 20 minutes in. First the film has to set up all its other stories: a wicked landlord who wants to seize Desire Village for his own purposes, a cadre of beat-boxing Nationalist army deserters-turned-bandits, the unexplained murder of Autumn’s tyrannical husband Big Pie (Zan Ban), the sudden appearance of lovesick martial arts master Chan (Joseph Chang), and several attempted suicides. Some of the plots work, particularly the one involving the army deserters. Others, like the mystery of Big Pie’s death, are resolved so quickly and matter-of-factly we wonder why they were there in the first place.
The Village of No Return might be of some interest to fans of Asian comedies, but like so many of its ilk it outpaces itself. So much happens that at times it feels like we’re watching the highlights of a television show rather than an actual movie, especially when a love triangle between Autumn, her lover who’s been missing for three years, and Chan gets introduced.
In short, if you see only one movie this year at the New York Asian Film Festival about an outsider who arrives in a nondescript town with a seemingly magical helmet that affects peoples’ memories, stick with Sabu’s Happiness (2016).