New York Asian Film Festival
June 22-July 5 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center; July 6-9 at the SVA Theatre
There’s a sense of history creeping up on and infecting the present in the lineup of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival, one of the city’s most lively and genre-heavy cinema events of the year. Look no further than Mario Cornejo’s Apocalypse Child—the film, a breezy indie about a group of people stuck in their small-town ways, features a hunky surfer character who may or may not be the illegitimate son of Francis Ford Coppola, conceived in an affair on the set of Apocalypse Now. His name is Ford, a reminder of the promises of a better future that were never kept. The past, specifically cinema’s past, is everywhere in this year’s lineup, and it seems intent on showing us the error of our ways in the most jarring ways it can.
Apocalypse Child is one of the more relaxing films of the festival, and may be the only one that doesn’t trouble your sleep. Ford may(?) be the son of the most ambitious American filmmaker of the last half century, but he’s the least ambitious man in his sleepy Philippines beach town. He gives surfing lessons and sleeps in his mother’s house, the posters on the wall betraying his decades-long refusal to grow up and get a life. Meanwhile his girlfriend contemplates returning to the family she abandoned, and his mother grows closer to a friend in local politics who’s conflicted about his impeding marriage to one of Ford’s surfing students. Movies like this, down to the fishscale-hued digital photography, have been staples of American film festivals for the last decade. When a Sundance screenwriting labs flaps its wings in Park City, an indie appears on the sun-dappled beaches of Aurora. Apocalypse Child has more personality than your average slice-of-life American dramedy, but considering the origin of movie’s namesake, it could have stood a touch of grandiosity, if only to not leave us wondering what about these amblers makes them worth watching beyond a dubious paternity claim. This is a bit more Rain People than Apocalypse Now.
History is a specter with many faces, a kind of malignant spirit risen from its slumber to taunt the living. Jang Jae-hyun’s The Priests is invaded by the past in many ways. It’s a film about a pair of exorcists revisiting an old spiritual foe and it’s as much in thrall to ghosts as it is the other films on the subject of exorcism. You know precisely what beats the film will hit because they’ve been hit this way since The Exorcist first set the box office on fire in 1973. Jang hits them with the typical fierceness of the new Korean cinema (Park Chan-Wook and Bong Joon-Ho are plainly tacked to his vision board), and is helped immeasurably by a splendidly jaundiced performance by The Chaser‘s Kim Yoon-seok, but you’ll know how this ends before it begins. Similarly death-obsessed but in no way predictable is Chung Lee’s The Laundryman. A contract killer is visited by the spirits of his latest victims. He visits a medium for help ridding him of his unwanted guests and learns that he has to figure out why they were marked for death in the first place. While knee-deep in the past, he finds his allegiance torn between the medium, who initially wants him to put aside his death-dealing and choose benevolence, and his employer, who naturally can’t have him turning into a ghost-hugging peacenik. This is Chung Lee’s first feature film and he already has a real flair for the outlandish. The Laundryman takes place in a neon hellscape, where ghosts shampoo their severed heads in your bathroom and have to be led in song and dance every so often. The Laundryman starts out in so flippant and garish a fashion that it’ll surprise even the most seasoned midnight-movie hound when it slows down at the midway point and becomes a film about choosing life over death. Finding love while pursued by ghosts and small-time gangsters starts to overtake the caffeinated hijinks of the early going and the film matures with it. The filmmaking, including the staging of fight scenes and the weight of its images, improves hugely as the plot starts to focus.
The ghosts are much less silly and much angrier in Wei-hao Cheng’s The Tag-Along, a Buddhist spin on the kind of righteously insane Christian horror movies that used to fill up the bottom half of Southern drive-in double bills. If you can picture Blood Freak or A Thief in The Night as done by early Hideo Nakata or Takashi Shimizu, you’re on the right track. There’s apparently an urban legend in China about a little girl in red showing up in tourist photographs, and The Tag-Along gives her legs and teeth. She possesses an old woman and then her thirtysomething son, leaving the son’s girlfriend behind to play detective. It seems ordinary enough (if absolutely terrifying), until the girlfriend starts having visions of an abandoned fetus—then you realize you’re in the hands of someone beholden to no rules whatever about the conduct of horror movies. Karma, reimagined as a ghastly little girl with a knack for shoving her hands into people’s faces, is the real villain here and you’d better live a life of virtue or it’ll plant you in a forest like a tree. The Tag-Along‘s religious conviction is facile but the filmmaking is absolutely topnotch, cranking out one boneshaking setpiece after another. It’s the scariest film of the year by a country mile, aided by wonderfully aggressive sound design and truly sick special effects. China and Japan used to fill up multiplexes (and American DVD shelves) with movies like this on a regular basis in the 2000s thanks to the success of Ringu, but nothing this totally bonkers yet absolutely razor-sharp has hit the market in a good long while.
In a way Kiyoshi Kurosawa is just as responsible for the Japanese horror boom as Ringu, Nakata’s landmark, and after a decade making wild experiments with almost no critical support he’s returned to the well he first help dig with fright favorites Cure and Pulse. Creepy is Kurosawa’s latest, following 2015’s gentle ghost love story Journey To The Shore (which was kicked around by almost every Western critic who saw it except the one you’re currently reading), and its title is hilariously apt. There’s no way to describe the film without saying the title six or seven times, if only because it’s just stuck there hanging above the proceedings. A failed detective starts helping a colleague with a cold case and is so wrapped up in interrogating the only living witness that he fails to see his wife falling under the spell of his appallingly mannered and awkward neighbor. The sickening thing about Creepy is the banal plausibility of every plot point. The conspiracy at the film’s core isn’t much of one, as there are only so many suspects. When the past crime starts lining up with one in the process of being committed, in hindsight it feels like an inevitability. In the moment, however? The unfolding mystery makes you feel dirty and helpless. Like an accomplice. Kurosawa has never been this cutthroat before, making seconds feel like hours while people are helplessly pushed further into the mire. Like peak Fritz Lang, Creepy makes you suffer along with a too-proud hero as he’s undone by fate and betrayed by the ground beneath his feet. It almost feels like punishment for everyone who’s written Kurosawa off these last few years.
Lee Joon-ik also has punishment on the brain in his two-part treatise on Korean historical figures who chose beauty over violence. The first and less successful is the award-winning The Throne, starring a typically brilliant Song Kang-ho as King Yeongjo during the most controversial week of his life, when he 18th century monarch imprisoned his son, crown prince Sado, in a box in his courtyard and watched him starve and bake to death. There are conflicting reports about Sado’s short-lived tenure as a governor, but the consensus includes some form of mental illness. Lee makes the mistake of looking at him through modern eyes and with typical Korean New Wave grammar, conjuring opulence in the set and costumes only to use lenses that cut them in half to better find the anemic social circumstances constricting Sado’s passions. It’s all too easy. Why does his father kill him? Because he grew into a modern conflicted hero, who’d rather dance and drink than make economic decisions, the pressures of which drove him insane. The film renders a difficult and barbarous stalemate in the simplest imaginable terms. Better to hop over to Lee’s other film on a victim of Korean history, the gentler Dongju: Portrait of a Poet, about the writer Yun Dong-Ju’s incredibly difficult life and eventual imprisonment. Its lovely black and white photography and cloudier moral compass makes it the far more rewardingly complex and beautiful of the two. Passages of Yun’s poetry over lyrical shots of the Korean countryside do work a typical historical document like The Throne cannot. One film wants you to learn a compact lesson from a thorny past, the other wants you to understand what it meant to live in one.
Immersion in a milieu is also plainly the goal of two of the fest’s event screenings, as well. Opener Twisted Justice, by Kazuya Shiraishi is a Scorsesean crooked cop odyssey (the press notes say “epic,” but nothing this claustrophobic can get away with calling itself that—which is all the better), told with the visual murkiness and electrocuted tempo of mid-period Sion Sono or Takashi Miike. Over thirty years, Shiraishi watches in stupefaction as a once-shy rookie cop morphs into a speed-chomping whoremonger banished from polite company. The film is at points hilarious and cringe-inducing and doesn’t do much to make you understand what it felt like to live in Japan during the three decades it spans, but it never runs out of steam. It’s full speed ahead watching a good man become a death-baiting daredevil. That alone is a feat worth celebrating. Ralston G. Jover’s Hamog looks initially to have been chosen because it’s the polar opposite of Twisted Justice, but the last reel changes all that. A Filipino neo-realistic melodrama about street kids takes a turn midway through when a girl is essentially kidnapped and held in indentured servitude by a perfect stranger. Her story, on top of featuring real details about life for orphans on the hot, disgusting slum streets the film occupies, ever so slightly turns into a Lino Brocka-esque potboiler, complete with a rug-pulling conclusion that justifies the film’s existence more than its street-level view of poverty. All the best films playing the New York Asian Film Festival have something like the excitement and surprise of this film’s astonishing final scenes. You think you’ve got it all figured out, then out comes the rug. That’s what makes this festival more than worth diving into: the electrifying feeling of knowing you don’t know what might happen next.