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  showings from each of the countries represented by the festival. Here we see the non-competition films from Japan, Southeast Asian, and South Korea. They represent only a fraction of the films presented from those three markets, but from them we get a glimpse into their sheer, eclectic vibrancy.

Japan

Japanese Girls Never Die, Fukuoka Broadcasting System (FBS)

Happiness

Watching cult Japanese director Sabu’s new film Happiness is sort of like watching any number of movies by Sion Sono. It’s odd, idiosyncratic, and completely unpredictable. And when I say unpredictable, I don’t mean it in the usual sense of unexpected plot twists, I mean that we the audience are incapable of guessing where the film is going, how it’s getting there, and what exactly the director is trying to do until it’s too late and all we can do is stare at the screen in incredulous wonder. The first half could be mistaken for a children’s film—an unusually quiet and languid one, but a children’s film nonetheless. A sad man named Mr. Kanzaki (Masatoshi Nagase) rolls into an nondescript Japanese village. Gripped in a paralytic lethargy, the rapidly aging townsfolk all seem resigned to the inevitable dissolution of their village as their children move away to the big city. But Mr. Kanzaki has other plans for them. In his suitcase he has an odd metal helmet covered in steampunk-esque pistons. When he puts it on somebody’s head and jiggers the pistons just right, the helmet applies minuscule amounts of pressure on their cerebral cortex, causing them to relive their happiest memory. One by one, he revitalizes the villagers. A morose elderly shopkeeper is overwhelmed with a memory reminding her that her distant mother truly loved her. A police officer relives the time he won a big baseball game with a home run. A little girl remembers the time she petted a particularly friendly dog. Their joie de vivre restored, the villagers decide to revitalize their home, complete with a huge celebration where Mr. Kanzaki is heralded as a hero.

And then the first murder happens. A young woman and her teenage daughter are slowly, savagely, graphically stabbed to death in their home by a masked intruder.

As I said, the film is unpredictable.

Happiness may not be a good film, but it is an interesting one, especially as the film morphs from a feel-good science fiction movie to a gory revenge thriller. The film doesn’t make the transition quite as seamlessly as it could or should have. The resulting effect is one of confused whiplash. But this is the kind of film that’s so unique, so utterly original that it’s irresistible. It’s an auteurist train wreck in the best way possible. Unlike most of the films I’ve seen so far this year, HAPPINESS is sure to stick with me for some time.

Grade: B

Japanese Girls Never Die

Daigo Matsui’s Japanese Girls Never Die is, at the least, a reminder that, for all its representation of children, teenagers, middle-aged adults, and seniors, college-age twenty-somethings are woefully underrepresented in mainstream Japanese cinema. Watching it, I found myself drawing a blank while trying to remember the last time I saw a Japanese film about college-aged adults. This absence has always struck me as odd, for during my time living abroad in Japan I learned that for most Japanese people, one’s college years are considered among a person’s most formative. One’s middle and high school years are meant for studying and preparing oneself for a future career while the academic standards at colleges are more relaxed so one can make friends and network. It’s during college that young people make the bonds and relationships that will define the rest of their lives. And yet Japanese cinema repeatedly returns to bittersweet nostalgia for grade schoolers, frustrated misdirection for middle aged adults, and resigned complacency for the elderly. So Matsui’s film is a crucial examination of a crucially underrepresented demographic.

The film focuses on two primary storylines. The first revolves around Haruko (Yu Aoi), an unmarried 27-year-old working a dead-end job where she’s criminally underpaid and routinely sexually harassed by her male bosses. Her one escape from her everyday lethargy is in a fruitless relationship with her oddball next-door neighbor and childhood friend Soga (Huey Ishizaki). Elsewhere, an unlikely love triangle develops between flighty bar-girl Aina (Mitsuki Takahata), bad-boy gas station attendant Yukio (Taiga), and meek convenience store clerk Manabu (Shôno Hayama). The unlikely friends escape the anhedonia of their go-nowhere mid-twenties by jumping into bed with each other and forming an underground graffiti ring known as “Kilroy.” Taking a page from Shepard Fairey’s “Andre the Giant Has a Posse” campaign, they start tagging their town with a stencil portrait adapted from a missing person’s notice of an enigmatic young woman. The twist: the missing person is none other than Haruko.

At first we think that Matsui is merely flashing back and forward between these two storylines, the one with Haruko being in the past and the one with “Kilroy” being in the present. But, no, that doesn’t make sense. There are several scenes where Haruko walks by Kilroy’s tags before she goes missing. So what’s the deal? Is Matsui deliberately unhinging his film from traditional narrative norms by eschewing strict linearity? He’s obviously making some obtuse statement about the disassociation experienced by Japanese women. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the film’s most notorious and confusing subplot, a raving band of high school maenads who roam the streets of Haruko’s town at night and assault men, beating them with baseball bats while shriek-singing happy songs. They remind one primarily of the Aurochs in Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)—an allegorical force existing on the periphery of the story’s reality that doesn’t really affect the film, but merely speaks volumes about the characters’ internal struggles. So why are they here? My guess is to distract the audience from the fact that Japanese Girls Never Die, while noble in its intentions of highlighting the existential crises of Japan’s millennials and the daily indignities faced by its women, is a dull, plodding, lifeless affair. It’s one of those aggravating films weighed down by its own import, pretentious in conception and openly hostile to viewers who want to make sense of Matsui’s narrative puzzle pieces.

Grade: C-

 

Suffering of Ninko

The New York Asian Film Festival’s marketing team may have made a mistake when, in their marketing for Norihiro Niwatsukino’s Suffering of Ninko, they quoted a review declaring it “beyond weird even by Japanese standards.” Because it’s not. Not even by a mile. Sion Sono’s films are weird by Japanese standards. Takashi Mike’s films are weird by Japanese standards. And all of their filmographies pale in comparison to that great opus of Japanese cinematic bizarreness, Nobuhiko Obayashi’s Dadaist HAUSU (1977). But Suffering of Ninko is unapologetically odd and peculiar. But once again, it is not “beyond weird” for Japan.

Suffering of Ninko is a Buddhist sex comedy/horror film about a devout monk named Ninko (Masato Tsujioka) with a peculiar affliction: he’s completely irresistible to women (and gay men). Whenever he travels to a nearby village to beg for alms, he’s assaulted by their women. At first the head priest decides the best way to save Ninko from temptation is to cloister him inside the temple. But he soon experiences hallucinations of a sultry temptress wearing a Noh mask beckoning him into the woods. When he embarks on a pilgrimage to purify himself of sin and temptation, he’s tormented by women who literally appear out of the ether to try and molest him. After a chance encounter with a gruff samurai named Kanzo (Hideta Iwahashi), Ninko discovers that the cause of his unique affliction might be a mountain succubus known as a yama-onna. How will he save himself and the inhabitants of a second village the yama-onna has been preying upon for months? Let’s just say Ninko’s techniques must needs be…unorthodox.

Suffering of Ninko is a stylistic shot of adrenaline and one of the most delightful films of the festival. The entire film is contextualized as a folk legend, complete with an omnipresent narrator and brief animated interludes where the story is recapped via ukiyo-e drawings. The entire film is infused with a breathless, impatient energy completely at odds with the majority of Japanese films that make it to international festivals and art cinemas. The centerpiece is a show-stopping montage of voluptuous women summoned by the yama-onna’s ritualistic dancing assaulting an increasingly frantic Ninko set to a cover of Ravel’s Boléro played on traditional Japanese instruments. If I had to give the film one major critique, it would be that this sequence comes too early in the film: everything else in the film pales in comparison.

In my research, I’ve found that this was Niwatsukino’s first directorial outing. I find this astonishing. If this is what happens the first time he gets behind a camera, then I await his next film with bated breath. Here’s hoping he might be the newest addition to Japan’s cadre of eccentric, hyper-prolific auteurs like Sabu and the aforementioned Sono and Miike.

Grade: A-

South Korea

The Truth Beneath, CJ Entertainment

Split

I doubt Choi Kook-Hee understands how appropriate the title Split is for his 2016 bowling film. It isn’t just that it’s about bowling; it’s a film at war with itself, torn between two genres, two storylines, and two conflicting tones. By the end, we can’t help but feel that something went disastrously wrong somewhere in the film’s screenwriting process. Tonal and emotional whiplash have been the bread-and-butter of South Korean genre filmmaker for almost two decades, and the country is still nearly unsurpassed in its ability to reliably churn out surprising, unexpected masterpieces. But SPLIT is one of those times where the disparate parts fail to properly come together. Which is a shame—there’s a very good film trapped somewhere inside it.

It begins with Chul-Jong (Yu Ji-Tae), a one-time professional bowling superstar who lost his family and the use of one of his legs in a car accident. He spends his days in a drunken stupor hustling small-time gangsters at a run-down bowling alley owned by Hee-Jin (Lee Jung-hyun), an easily frustrated young woman who owes massive amounts of money to Chul-Jong’ one-time rival Dooggeobi, AKA “Toad” (Jung Sung-Hwa). After Toad gives her one month to pay back her father’s astronomical loans lest he force her to work at his “hostess club,” Hee-jin and Chul-Jong scramble to devise a plan to raise the money. But their fortunes change when Chul-Jong discovers Young-Hoon (David Lee), an autistic 26-year old with a near supernatural knack for bowling. But only under the right conditions: he has to use a specific beat-up, fluorescent pink ball, wear a specific ratty pair of shoes, and bowl in a specific lane. Oh, and most importantly, don’t ever address him by his last name.

The film borrows many of its story beats from Barry Levinson’s Rain Man (1988). At first Chul-Jong is mesmerized by Young-Hoon and later frustrated by him when he tries to use him for his schemes. He spends much of the movie learning to not just love him, but come to view him as an authentic human being, not just a defective one. But all of this is sidetracked when the film suddenly becomes a gangster thriller in the second half, complete with Chul-Jong making horrific bets on bowling games against powerful criminals. By the time we learn that Chul-Jong’s fatal car accident might not have been so accidental, we can’t help but realize that both Hee-Jin and Young-Hoon have completely vanished from the story. They’re hardly even in the third act. The film gets darker and darker until the bowling aspect itself is overshadowed completely by Chul-Jong’s story arc. In fact, that should be my pull quote: Split is a bowling movie that forgets it’s about bowling.

Grade: C

The Truth Beneath

As frustrated as I am with the current ubiquity of last minute plot twists in this post-The Usual Suspects era (see my review for Yang Shupeng’s Blood of Youth for details) sometimes all a film needs to go from good to great is a truly original, truly unexpected twist. On the surface, Lee Kyoung-mi’s The Truth Beneath is unremarkable. Visually, it’s indistinct from any number of other Korean thrillers. Narratively, it covers common ground. On the eve of an important election, local politician Kim Jong-chan (Kim Joo-hyuk) discovers that his daughter Min-jin (Shin Ji-hoon) has gone missing. Against the demands of his wife Yeon-hong (Son Ye-jin), he continues his campaign, leaving her to coordinate the search for her whereabouts. But after Min-jin is found dead—that’s not a spoiler, folks, it happens in the first 30-40 minutes—Jong-chang’s polls skyrocket against his opponent, cinching the election. Predictably for political thrillers, Yeon-hong starts to suspect her husband for coordinating her death to gain sympathy votes. Blah, blah, blah, democracy corrupts, and so on and so forth.

 

But as Yeon-hong’s search for her daughter’s killers goes from an obsession to full-fledged mania, something odd begins to happen to The Truth Beneath. It slowly starts to warp into an entirely different film. Yeon-hong eventually discovers Choi Mi-ok (Kim So-hee), her daughter’s classmate and best friend whom she repeatedly called the night of her murder. The deeper she goes into their odd friendship, the more she learns that her precious daughter might not have been so innocent and perfect. Why did their test scores suddenly skyrocket from mediocre to among the best in the school shortly after meeting each other? Why is their teacher so defensive when Yeon-hong asks her about it? Why does Min-jin have tens of thousands of unanswered emails in her inbox? Why Choi Mi-ok spend all her free time trying to figure out how to unlock a partially shattered phone? Where did she even get it? And most importantly, could they have been more than just friends? What began as Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men (1976) has become Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures (1994). And we the audience are left to marvel at yet another example of why Korean cinema remains one of the most singularly original and inspired national cinemas on the planet. Don’t miss this one.

Grade: A

 

SOUTHEAST ASIA

Town in a Lake

Saving Sally

Alongside Bill Watterson’s Dave Made a Maze, Avid Liongoren’s Saving Salley is one of the most visually ambitious films of 2017. Taking place primarily in the headspace of Marty (Enzo Marcos), a high school senior with dreams of becoming a comic book artist, the film envisions the character’s home town of Quezon City, Philippines as a gigantic melting pot of green-screens, CGI buildings, traditionally animated monsters, and puppetry. There’s a peculiar warp and bend to the most mundane things. Consider the public buses with super low roofs which force the passengers to lean into their knees. Consider how the buildings all look like they were designed by cartoonists instead of architects. And consider the bizarre, wondrous, and physically impossible gadgets invented by Marty’s neighbor, the beautiful, quirky, and troubled Sally (Rhian Ramos). With little more than assorted bric-a-brac she cobbles together a mechanical dish scrubber, binoculars the US military would be envious of, and a jerry-rigged vacuum cleaner that mimics the sound of snoring so she can sneak out in the middle of the night to meet with her boyfriend Nick (TJ Trinidad). Who just so happens to be 28. And who, according to Marty’s daydreams, is a literal giant penis.

Yes, Marty is madly, irresponsibly, hopelessly in love with Sally. He dreams of saving her one day like a superhero, of whisking her away to his room secretly covered in drawings of her that idealize her as a princess, a hero, the literal center of the universe. But for now all he can do is seethe and stew over Nick’s mistreatment of her. Yes folks, SAVING SALLY is essentially a movie about the Friend Zone. But unlike most Friend Zone narratives, the film recognizes that in his own ways Marty is just as pathetic and hopeless as the imagined bullies he fantasizes about beating up. He does, after all, imagine most of the people he meets on the street as crosses between Takashi Murakami cartoons and Jamie Hewlett doodles. But at the least the film tries to transcend the strictures of teen love-sickness by diving into some very difficult, very adult themes. Suicide. Abuse. Teenage pregnancy. Abortion. Pedophilia. (An acquaintance of Nick says he “likes them young.”). But is it all enough to elevate SAVING SALLY from its embarrassingly predictable and formulaic plot?

Well, no. For all the creative abandon of its visuals, for all its pretenses of thematic weight, the film is essentially about a young man rescuing a young woman and living happily ever after. We predict all the twists, expect all the uncomfortable revelations, and yawn at the two-dimensional supporting characters. As a visual experience, Saving Sally is superb and daring. But everything else is just as flat as the comics Marty scribbles in his notebooks.

Grade: C

Town in a Lake

I’ve heard director Jet Leyco described as the Philippines’ answer to David Lynch. If his film Town in a Lake is anything to go by, the comparison is apt. Partly. Much like Lynch’s masterpiece Blue Velvet (1986) and his cult TV show Twin Peaks, Leyco’s Town in a Lake dives into the seedy underbelly of respectable society, stripping away the surface veneer of civilization to see the rotting carcass of depravity beneath. The film begins when two 16-year-old schoolgirls from the fishing village of Matangtubig are kidnapped and raped. One is murdered, the other escapes. As investigators scramble to track down the perpetrators, bizarre omens materialize around the village. Cattle are killed and mutilated, their severed heads thrown about empty fields. Scandal-hungry journalists disappear into a nearby river after being startled by chaotic flocks of birds. The surviving girl’s brother vanishes into the forest and stumbles upon strange, otherworldly creatures and a beckoning void into nothingness. A potential witness of the kidnappings wanders through the village, seeing visions of the missing girls. And all the while the victims’ grief-stricken mothers contend with crooked politicians, ineffectual cops, and a community that harbors indescribable secrets. It feels like the village is heading towards some supernatural reckoning. At least until we learn that aliens did it. At least, I think they’re aliens. They could be extra-dimensional travelers. It’s all a matter of semantics.

Some might think this is a spoiler. But I’d argue otherwise. Spoilers assume that a story is constructed with the intention of shocking and surprising the audience. But Town in a Lake is so disinterested in the techniques of narrative that revealing the climax does no more to ruin the experience than saying that Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010)—the film Town in a Lake feels the most similar to in tone, technique, and aesthetic ambition—contains a scene where a princess has sex with a catfish or Terrence Malick’s 1950s drama The Tree of Life (2011) contains dinosaurs.

Unlike the films of Lynch, Town in a Lake struggles to create a unified sense of purpose. Even at his most esoteric, Lynch’s work felt tempered by a singular, deliberate vision. His films all had points, no matter how misguided or confusing they might be. Town in a Lake feels too detached to be meaningful, too deliberately confusing to be engaging. It’s all intellectual surface with no emotional meaning beneath it. If Leyco really is the Philippines’ David Lynch, then he has a lot of catching up to do, because Town in a Lake is a dull, boring mess that says nothing and inspires nothing in the hearts of its audience but indifference.

Grade: D

 

Featured Image: CJ Entertainment