Of the 57 films being shown at this year’s New York Asian Film Festival (NYAFF), only seven were selected to compete for its prestigious Audience Award, presented last year to Kankuro Kudo’s deranged paranormal comedy Too Young to Die!. In keeping with this year’s goal of increasing the visibility of Southeast Asian cinema—an industry traditionally ignored by Western festivals and marketplaces—three of these films hail from the area. Two of them, Thailand’s Bad Genius and the Philippines’ Birdshot are not only the best of the slate, but also among the best of the festival. (Although sadly, Vietnam’s KFC is easily the worst.) Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, and Hong Kong contributed one film each to the slate, ranging from good to mediocre to disastrously miscalculated. There are two frustrating aspects to this year’s slate, the first being the noticeable absence of an entry from mainland China. But the second and most significant is that these films do a pitiful job representing the depth and variety of the kind of movies offered by the NYAFF, one of the most unique and unpredictable festivals in New York City. There isn’t a single action movie or comedy anywhere in the slate, and while several films make superficial overtures towards genre filmmaking, such as Taiwan’s The Gangster’s Daughter, only Bad Genius and KFC could be considered bona fide genre films. There’s a distinct lack of levity and lightheartedness in these films, suggesting either a prejudice on the part of the festival organizers towards “serious” movies or their fear that the NYAFF won’t get taken seriously if they aggressively promote their more bizarre and idiosyncratic films. But I’d argue it’s these very weird films that have kept the NYAFF alive for 16 years. We can get dour dramas anywhere in the world, but where else but Asia can we get the anarchic insanity of Sion Sono or Takashi Miike? The action extravaganzas of Tsui Hark? The tonal unpredictability of Giddens Ko? Hopefully in the future, the NYAFF will be more willing to let its freak flag fly.
Double Life (Japan)
Yoshiyuki Kishi’s Double Life missed its decade by about 50 years and its country by about a continent. If Double Life had been released in the 1960s by a French director, one could easily imagine it being one of the classics of the era. But Kishi’s emotionally constipated film had the misfortune of being from modern day Japan. So instead of a reflective treatise on urban isolation and existential longing, it becomes a tepid melodrama. These are harsh words, but it’s hard to feel charitable to a film that squanders so much goodwill by wasting such a potentially intriguing premise.
The film follows Tama (Mugi Kadowaki) a comely philosophy major who drifts through life in a daze. She wakes in the morning, makes clumsy love with her distant boyfriend, and goes to class without once breaking a smile, not once giving any more sign of life than the movement of her legs propelling her forward. After a chronic case of writer’s block while working on her preposterously titled and conceived graduate thesis “What is Existence in Contemporary Japan,” her professor and mentor suggests an unorthodox method of revitalizing her project: take a page from French philosopher Sophie Calle and secretly follow a complete stranger. Learn the rhythms of their life, he says, discover the humanity beating within their day-to-day mundanity. She picks her neighbor, a senior editor at a prestigious publishing house famous for his ability to pick bestsellers from the submission slush pile. He seems to have the perfect life: a great job, a beautiful wife, a sugary sweet daughter. Yet as she follows him, she starts to discover that his life isn’t as rosy as it may seem.
The first half of Double Life is mesmeric in a contemplative way I suspect many casual viewers might find intolerable. But fans of the European art house—particularly the work of directors like Andrei Tarkovsky and Michelangelo Antonioni for whom the act of physically seeing is more essential than any pretense towards plot or character development—will find Tama’s pursuits quietly hypnotic. But when she’s discovered halfway through the film and forced to become a player in her subject’s life, the film falls apart into pretentious dreck as the two stumble into an ill-advised, abortive affair of their own. A subplot focusing on Tama’s professor and his terminally ill mother provides a much needed human touch, but it too eventually dissolves into navel-gazing absurdity late in the film. Let’s just say it involves him living his own double life, one no more satisfying than Tama’s.
Bad Genius (Thailand)
The first time star pupil Rinrada “Lynn” Nilthep (Chutimon Chuengcharoensukying) cheats, it’s simply to help her friend Grace (Eisaya Hosuwan) get a high enough test score that she can perform in the school play. After all, she owes her: Grace was the first person to ever treat the impoverished, socially inept Lynn like a human being after she transferred to their prestigious prep school after receiving a full scholarship for nearly supernatural test scores. To help her cheat during an exam, Lynn scribbles the test answers on an eraser which she drops into one of her shoes and kicks backwards towards Grace’s desk when the teacher is distracted. But first she has to figure out HOW to distract the teacher. But this pales in comparison to her second problem: how does she retrieve the incriminating shoe after it’s accidentally kicked across the room?
The genius of Nattawut Poonpiriya’s superlative Bad Genius is that despite the high school setting, it’s essentially a heist film. The film revolves around three sequences where Lynn and her compatriots cheat, each scheme becoming more outrageous and dangerous than the next. Each is shot with the visual grammar and editing rhythms of a thriller, building up tension usually unheard of outside the more sensationalist film genres. Each heist is introduced with vignettes introducing accomplices, marks, and potential complications. Game plans are formulated and meticulously executed. Take the second heist. When Lynn begs Grace to help her and her rich boyfriend Pat (Teeradon Supapunpinyo) organize a cheating ring benefiting the school’s lazy rich kids, Lynn creates an ingenious cross between Morse Code and flag semaphore to signal the answers of the test to her classmates by fingering various classical piano riffs on her desk. Of course, the plan quickly goes south when they discover on test day that there are two sets of tests and two sets of answers. What ensues is one of the most scrupulously envisioned and perfectly executed capers in recent cinematic memory.
About two-thirds of the way through, Bad Genius achieves the kind of tonal shift that shatters most movies. While the first two-thirds never shy away from the grimmer realities of Lynn’s situation as an inherently good young woman forced into a terrible business through peer pressure and poverty—it turns out the school is extorting her father for thousands of dollars in “maintenance money”—there’s an underlying sense of fun in how the plans come together. But by the time the third heist comes along, it’s not so fun anymore. It’s not charming, it’s not innocent; it involves a secret trip to Sydney, Australia and the deliberate destabilization of the entire college entrance examination circuit for all of Thailand. It involves a fellow classmate named Bank (Chanon Santinatornkul) who’s equally brilliant, equally poor, and equally desperate for a scholarship to an American university as Lynn. There are friends who may not have actually been friends this whole time, the threat of expulsion and imprisonment, and several sudden realizations that these young people may not be as smart, clever, or good-hearted as they originally thought. It’s no exaggeration to say that I haven’t seen a more stressful and heart-throttling third act since Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room (2015).
Bad Genius isn’t just one of the films to beat of the New York Asian Film Festival, it’s one of the films to beat of all 2017.
Mikhail Red’s Birdshot is a film of ghosts and specters. But not just in the literal sense of hidden figures moving just out of eyesight in forests or pale-faced widows who materialize in empty, locked-up police stations. The spirits that haunt this film are much more malignant and incorporeal: greed, cyclical violence, inescapable corruption. BIRDSHOT may follow a bifurcated plot, but it’s first and foremost a screech of anger towards a Philippines infested by crooked authorities and politicians. Whether Red began writing and producing the film before Rodrigo Duterte—the Filipino strongman whose extrajudicial killings of criminals gained him populist support and international condemnation for human rights abuses—took office is irrelevant: the film is as much a metaphor for his destructive presidency as it is a nihilistic parable of human nature.
Curiously, the film names itself after the film’s secondary plot. Rural farm girl Maya (Mary Joy Apostol) kills a haribon, the critically endangered and federally protected Philippine eagle, while practicing her shooting skills in a federal reserve. When she brings the bird home to her father, he scolds her and orders her to bury it. When the police arrive to investigate the bird’s disappearance, Maya faces a crisis that flings her into a premature womanhood. This traumatic coming-of-age story closely resembles Naji Abu Nowar’s THEEB (2014), a film about a Bedouin boy forced to grow up in the shadow of World War One and the Great Arab Revolt. Both films follow children forced to mature in an environment of violence and duplicity neither can understand nor control. Both children are driven by the loss of family members to said violence. Both films use learning how to shoot a rifle as a metaphor for growing up. And, crucially, both revolve around apex predators as metaphors for their protagonists: a wolf for the Bedouin boy, an eagle for the Filipino girl.
But the bulk of the film follows Diego (Ku Aquino), an idealistic rookie policeman partnered with an openly corrupt cop named Mendoza (John Arcilla). Their first assignment is to investigate the disappearance of a bus headed to Manilla along with its ten passengers. After Mendoza brutally interrogates a laborer involved in illegal deforesting, Diego begins to question the integrity of the police department. Diego’s suspicion grows when he’s ordered off the case after the two of them discover the remains of the bus in the countryside. Despite ever-growing pressure, Diego doggedly pursues the case, discovering a horrifying set of clues. It turns out the ten missing passengers were farmers from a San Jose hacienda who were traveling to the capital to officially protest their harassment by land-owners. Suddenly the chief’s increasingly violent demands for him to drop the case—“top men” are coming in to investigate, he assures Diego—seem much more sinister. Then the threats start. The trees outside his house are set on fire. He gets threatening phone calls. And all the while Diego finds himself slipping further and further into the darkness he so despises among his fellow officers. If only he could focus on the case he was reassigned to, a case involving a missing haribon…
Birdshot is a slow-burning drama that’s mistakenly described as a thriller because it happens to involve shoot-outs, stand-offs, and moments of unbearable suspense. But this film isn’t ABOUT these scenes of violence: it’s about the people who commit them and their inability to change their destinies in a corrupt, broken society. Both Maya and Diego trap themselves in an unstoppable chain of destruction by pursuing their own agency. Maya hunts the haribon because she wants to be a self-sufficient survivor, not a wallflower dependent on men like her grandmother. And Diego gets reassigned to the haribon case because he refuses to ignore the missing farmers. Both intentions are noble. But both lead to the same inescapable destiny. What future can there be when annihilation is all that faces the just and righteous? Red isn’t optimistic. But if you had to live under Duterte’s thumb, you might feel the same.
The Gangster’s Daughter (Taiwan)
Gangster movies have a nasty tendency to subsume quiet, introspective character development within the larger confines of bombastic violence, Machiavellian power struggles, and operatic betrayals. Perhaps because of these extravagances, gangster movies tend to dwell on the surface motivations of their characters, leaving whatever subtext might exist to be dug up and identified by the viewers. Not so with Mei-Juin Chen’s The Gangster’s Daughter, an understated character study of junior high schooler Shaowu (Ally Chiu) and her estranged, gangster father Keiko (Jack Kao). There are the requisite scenes of brutal violence, but they are constrained to the very beginning and the very end of the film, leaving the bulk of the movie devoted to these two strangers learning to love each other. Though occasionally dry and slow, it’s an effective drama that’s fascinating for how it reconfigures the gangster genre to suit its own reflective needs.
After her mother dies, Shaowu moves from her isolated home on Taiwan’s Kinmen Island to Taipei to live with her father. Shaowu had always been a little off—she spends her off-hours on Kinmen lounging in an abandoned military bunker where she plays with abandoned, unexploded military ordinance—but the discovery that her father is a gangster lights a spark in her adolescent heart. She starts memorizing lines from gangster movies and reenacting them. She renames herself “Shaowu the Bad” and assaults a schoolyard bully who stole her phone. And most notably, to Keiko’s horror, she gets a back tattoo—widely considered throughout East Asia as the gangster’s calling card. Keiko may be a gangster, but he’s strictly old school: he doesn’t want his innocent daughter getting caught up in his lifestyle. And much like Vito Corleone, his old-fashioned attitudes towards his family and his “business,” particularly when said business goes behind his back and starts selling drugs, spells his doom.
There isn’t much to say about Keiko: if you’ve seen one gangster film about an aging boss who has second guesses about his chosen profession, you’ve seen them all. His character only becomes interesting in the scenes where he awkwardly tries to connect with Shaowu, my favorite being one where she drags him to a newfangled photo booth for a roll of cutesy selfies. It’s Shaowu who steals the show. Henry Hill may have wanted to be a gangster in Goodfellas (1990) because of the money, power, and respect. But Shaowu seems drawn to it for totally different reasons. Is it the need to belong? The need to stick up for herself? The need to connect with Keiko? It’s difficult to tell. And that’s what makes her character and journey so unique.
Jane (South Korea)
Much like last year’s notorious head-scratcher Alone (Park Hong-min, 2015), it seems the South Koreans are primed once again to deliver the single most esoteric, confusing, and needlessly obtuse film of the entire New York Asian Film Festival with Cho Hyun-hoon’s Jane, a dizzying, maddening slurry too clever and self-satisfyingly smart for its own good. The rumor around town suggests that Hyun-hoon’s film would have gone unnoticed if not for a glowing review from a prominent Western critic, all but securing its place in the overseas festival market. Hopefully this review will help alleviate the effects of that mistake.
Jane centers around So-hyun (Lee Min-Ji), a teenage runaway who falls in love with a young man, loses him, falls in with a group of other runaways, loses herself, and struggles to rise above a quagmire of isolation and loneliness. And along the way she meets Jane (Gu Gyo-hwan), a gentle yet world-weary transsexual. In Jane she finds a kindred spirit and an outlet for all her confused emotions. At least, that is, until Jane commits suicide by jumping off a tall building. This isn’t a spoiler, mind you. This all happens in the first thirty minutes. So-hyun and some acquaintances bury Jane in the woods, at which point the real movie begins. So-hyun joins up with a “family” of other runaways led by a domineering “dad” who pimps the female runaways out for cash. They abuse So-hyun and make her an accessory in the torture and murder of one of their number. At which point Jane… comes back?
Not that any of this is easy to follow. Hyun-hoon deliberately chops the narrative into a clutter of misplaced pieces. During the first thirty minutes that chart So-hyun and Jane’s relationship before the latter’s sudden, unceremonious end, it’s actually quite impactful and moving. The assembly line of story fragments might not make sense from a narrative standpoint, but they make perfect emotion sense as two broken people try and put each other back together. It’s disorienting, but pleasantly disorienting.
But when Jane dies, the film devolves into a confused, gloomy morass. None of the emotions make sense. None of the characters make any sense. The rest of the film is so poorly constructed that I couldn’t tell if So-hyun met Jane before, during, or after her time with the “family.” It’s difficult to communicate just how miserably dull Jane is to someone who hasn’t seen it. If Hyun-hoon had stuck to telling a simple, coherent story without any film school bells and whistles, he may have had something, instead of this DOA mess.
I’m probably the first person in the history of the English language to use this description, but the best way I can think to sum up Le Binh Giang’s KFC is as a Krzysztof Kieślowski splatter film. Deliberately detached, unhurried, and cerebral, the film distances itself from linear modes of storytelling to examine an unbroken cycle of violence in modern Vietnam through a group of loosely interconnected characters, most of whom are completely unaware of each other. Most of the film seems like a collection of unrelated vignettes. It’s only near the last act—although “act” might not be the right term for such an experimental film that barely cracks 60 minutes—that the various puzzle pieces come together and we realize that we’ve been watching one larger story, just horribly out of order and from a multitude of conflicting perspectives. Giang flirts with heavy themes like the inescapable grip of Western capitalism in Third World countries and the decay of Vietnamese society. Of course, it does all this while focusing on a cannibalistic ambulance driver who runs over pedestrians at night, rapes their bodies, preserves their heads in formaldehyde, and then eats what’s left with his obese son. Machete gang fights break out, cadaver juices are greedily sucked through plastic tubes, and an innocent woman is tried up in a bathroom stall, mutilated, burned with cigarettes, has her tongue cut out with a rusty pair of scissors, then gets covered with ravenous flesh-eating maggots. The disconnect between its esoteric intellectual ambitions and Z-grade grindhouse gore is disorienting, to say the least.
Ironically the thing that ultimately undoes KFC is that it tries to say something meaningful. When Giang just wants to titillate or disturb, he does so beautifully and brilliantly. The bathroom stall scene might be the most visually graphic in the film, but one scene involving the ambulance driver’s son, his friend, and an oddly hairy “sausage” brought me the closest I’ve ever been to throwing up in a movie theater. And I’ve made my way through a good chunk of the films on the United Kingdom’s Video Nasties list. But whenever Giang tries to tell a story, the film bursts at the seams. By the end, we feel like we’ve gotten the basic gist of the movie—a relative of one of the ambulance driver’s victims goes on a revenge spree with far-reaching consequences—but the details are completely lost on us. Repeated characters fade in, fade out, get killed or do some killing, and so on until the film’s confusing conclusion. This is the kind of film that necessitates repeated viewings to properly figure out what happens in it. But the film’s tired message of “violence always begets violence” does little to inspire enthusiasm for more than one watch. We’re left with a scatterbrained, ultra-violent piece of faux-intellectual shlock that thinks it’s cleverer than it really is. And we already have enough Eli Roth films here in the West.
With Prisoners (China)
In watching Andrew Wong Kwok-kuen’s prison drama With Prisoners, it’s important to remember that it isn’t a grand metaphor like Stuart Rosenberg’s COOL HAND LUKE (1967) nor a comment on the human condition like Frank Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption (1994). Instead, it’s an expose. Based on true stories, it explores the abuses foisted upon troubled youths sentenced to Sha Tsui Detention Center, a notorious Hong Kong juvie renowned for its cruel treatment of inmates. As an expose, it features many horrific scenes of exploitative abuse, but it ends with an unexpected anti-climax. There’s no dramatic confrontation between the corrupt guards and the abused inmates, no grand catharsis where the police storm Samuel Norton’s office. We are left instead with the realization that this story hasn’t ended and may never end unless Hong Kong experiences a dramatic cultural shift towards empathizing with criminals instead of dismissing them as worthless and disposable. But until then, the horrors of Sha Tsui will continue.
After assaulting an off-duty police officer who was abusing his girlfriend in an alley, the rebellious yet principled gang leader Fan (Neo Yau) gets sentenced to three months at Sha Tsui. Immediately he’s thrown into a vicious, dehumanizing environment dominated by preposterous rituals of politeness. There are rituals for how to stand in line-up, how to wake up in the morning and address the guards, how to exercise in the courtyard, how to sit down at the cafeteria tables, even for the order in which they must eat their food. The phrases “Yessir thank you sir” and “Sorry sir,” both spoken in English, are repeated so often and emphatically that they become meaningless, fascistic mantras. The whole time, the capricious guards select random inmates for grotesque beatings, sometimes even forcing their fellow inmates to do the dirty work for them. Despite initially swearing to fight back against the system, Fan gets cowed by the abuse, especially following a nightmarish incident where he’s forced to scrub a filthy toilet with his fingers and then use said fingers to “brush his teeth.” Fan realizes there are only two options: be respectful and serve his time or commit suicide.
It would have been easy for Kwok-kuen to make a simple exploitation film about prison abuses, but instead he gives the film unexpected depth with its secondary protagonist, a young, idealistic guard who earnestly believes in rehabilitating prisoners instead of simply abusing them. But as his fellow guards and his superiors brow-beat and humiliate him for not being tough enough, not being feared enough, we realize that the system isn’t just designed to wear down and dehumanize inmates—it relies on the dehumanization of its guards, too. By forcing the guards to view the inmates as vermin, they can justify their cruelties. They can justify their indignities. They can even justify looking the other way when inmates start dying, either by their own hands or in freak “accidents” in restricted areas of the prison where only the guards have access. After a time, we realize Fan isn’t the only character the title is referring to.