SIMON SAYS: Local Heroes: The New York Asian Film Festival Strikes Again (And Again, And Again)

SIMON SAYS: Local Heroes: The New York Asian Film Festival Strikes Again (And Again, And Again)

The New York Asian Film Festival, now a pop culture institution unto itself, started eleven years ago. Its movies were first screened at the Anthology Film Archives in the summer of 2002. For a while, the festival was just a colossal labor of love for fest founders Goran Topalovic, Nat Olson, Paul Kazee, Brian Naas and Grady Hendrix. The air conditioning at the Anthology broke a lot during the festival's first few summers, and the programmers paid for much of the festival's expenses with their personal credit cards. Most years, the festival earned just enough to break even, but each following year, they'd come back stronger and more determined than ever to show attendants genre films and arthouse experiments from across Asia. 
nullWith raffle drawings before each film, surprise screenings, and a plethora of special guests, the festival has become a staple of adventurous New York cinephiles' annual calendars. So while this year's program may seem like it's filled with familiar titles and faces, that's only because the New York Asian Film Festival (NYAFF) helped those titles and faces to become familiar. Oldboy, the poster child for the short-lived "Asia Extreme" movement of the early aughts, screened this past weekend with star Min-Sik Choi in attendance. And the first two Infernal Affairs movies, the crooked cop/gangster saga that inspired Martin Scorsese's The Departed, will screen this Friday. Which is fitting, since Infernal Affairs previously screened at NYAFF in 2004, while two of Oldboy director Chan-wook Park's films screened at the festival in 2003 and 2007, respectively. These guys don't jump on bandwagons, they get people on them: Park's Joint Security Area screened at NYAFF (before it was officially NYAFF) a year before Oldboy came out in America, and Infernal Affairs played NYAFF a couple of months before it got a miniscule limited theatrical engagement, thanks to the Weinstein brothers. 
NYAFF also got Janus Films to dig up Nobuhiko Obayashi's psychedelic House, a film that has gone on to be one of the Criterion Collection's biggest sellers, from their vaults. They've started cults around filmmakers like Katauhito Ishii (The Taste of Tea; Funky Forest: The First Contact), Johnnie To (Exiled; Throw Down) and Ji-Woon Kim (I Saw the Devil; The Good, the Bad and the Weird). These guys may have started from (and with little!) scratch, but they went on to become wildly influential taste-makers.
This year, the original NYAFF programmers are not present: Olson and Naas have left the festival, while a couple of other succeeding NYAFF curators have assumed diminished responsibilities. And the festival's venue has changed over the years, too; this will be NYAFF's third year at Lincoln Center's fully air-conditioned Walter Reade. But not much else has changed. The festival continues to show support for the artists they've previously championed, further fostering a sense of community, with high-energy events for each of these screenings. 
nullFor example, Hong Kong filmmaker Edmond Pang has had a film screen at the festival before (Pang's Exodus screened in 2009). But this year, NYAFF will screen two of Pang's features and an eclectic shorts program called Pang Ho-Cheung's First Attempt. First Attempt was a one-time-only reprisal of an interactive experience where Pang talked about four of his early short films before, after and while they screened. Pang made these shorts with his mother and two brothers when he was 11, 12 and then 26 years old. The earlier shorts, where Pang improvised slow motion effects and spliced in footage from John Woo films like A Better Tomorrow, were definitely the highlights of what was shown. Their make-do aesthetic has a cockiness to it that makes every boombox song cue and every spliced-in scene of buildings exploding that much more endearing.
Better yet, before a screening of Pang's romantic comedy Love in the Buff, Pang and Hendrix re-enacted (with hand puppets!) the events of Love in a Puff, the romcom to which Buff is a sequel, for anyone that hadn't seen it. The NYAFF gang will do anything to make first-time attendants feel welcome, and they do it with such a unique combination of storied grace and aw-shucks charm that it's almost scientifically impossible to not be won over.
nullAnd the festival hasn't stopped making new discoveries either. On Sunday, the festival screened The Sword Identity, the directorial debut of Chinese screenwriter/action choreographer Xu Haofeng. Haofeng is the screenwriter of The Grandmasters, Kar-wai Wong's upcoming martial arts epic. Watching The Sword Identity, you can easily see a similarity between Haofeng's interests and Wong's. Haofeng has made a genre film ideologically grounded in the notion that actions reflect character and that physical gestures and techniques always express the essence of things. That's the kind of story that the protagonists of both In the Mood for Love and 2046 dream of writing and the kind that Wong tried to make in Ashes of Time
Still, The Sword Identity, which screens again on the 11th, is very much an accomplished self-sufficient work and a compelling festival find. In his Sunday introduction to the film, Hendrix probably overplayed the fact that the film got a blase critical reception at last year's Toronto International Film Festival. But The Sword Identity is now very much a NYAFF find, a film whose vision of heroism perfectly matches the festival's ethos. NYAFF programmers know that, when it comes to screening exciting and innovative films, it's not just the thought that counts. These guys never program in a half-assed manner; they always pull out as many stops as they can. To paraphrase Harlan Ellison, the most important thing about NYAFF is not that they became a great film festival–it's that they've remained a great film festival. Here's to another eleven years of discoveries at the New York Asian Film Festival.
Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in The Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, The New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, Extended Cut.




For a few months now, China Lion Entertainment has been better in theory than in practice. For those that missed my Lunar New Year piece: China Lion is an American distributor of popular contemporary Chinese and Hong Kong films. Until this week and with the notable exceptions of some interesting but inconsistent melodramas like Aftershock and Love in Space, China Lion had yet to release a film worth recommending without serious reservations. China Lion films typically don't leave you with any resonant emotions beyond superficial first impressions. They're fluffy, and, even in the extreme case of Aftershock, a family drama about two generations of Tangshan Great Earthquake survivors, there's very little gravity to them.

Thankfully, with the release of Love in the Buff, Hong Kong co-writer/director Ho-cheung Pang's (aka: Edmond Pang) sequel to the equally moving and light romcom Love in a Puff, China Lion has finally released something worth recommending (China Lion never released Love in a Puff, presumably because it originally released when the company, which focuses mostly on first-run features, did not exist in 2010).

Love in the Buff follows a young former couple as they try to meet other people while struggling to get back together. Like many of Pang's previous offbeat comedies, Love in the Buff is a movie about storytelling and the cumulative effect of white lies. Pang's young lovers tell each other stories about people they know and about each other, like the one about the girl with a lover's pube stuck in her bracelet or the plain-looking blind date whose mother claims he looks like In the Mood for Love star Tony Leung Chiu-wai (the man explains that his mother only meant that he is as tall as Leung). In telling these small, incestuously inter-related fictions, Pang's characters create the lives they want to lead out of the unremarkable ones they currently live.

That heady concept is developed at the start of Love in a Puff, in which Cherie Yu (Miriam Yeung) and Jimmy Cheung (Shawn Yue), two soon-to-be lovers, meet while huddled over a trash can for a smoke (in 2009, a law in Hong Kong was passed that banned smoking in office buildings and some public parks, too). Pang frames the romance in Love in the Buff similarly by showing Cherie and Jimmy chatting conspiratorially about a mutual friend. No matter how hard their mutual friend tries to protect her boyfriends, they all inexplicably die, or so the story goes. One dies after doing laundry at a Laundromat so the friend buys a washer machine. But her next boyfriend falls to his death from a window while hanging laundry up to dry at home, and so on.

So unlike Love in a Puff, which started with a story about a man being trapped in a trunk and the aforementioned pube anecdote, Love in the Buff starts with a personal, fatalistic myth of Cherie and Jimmy's "Black Widow" friend. You don't have to know who Cherie and Jimmy are or where they are in their relationship after the events of Love in a Puff because Pang has just had his jaded lovers tell us. They're scared of losing each other, an anxiety that soon proves to be self-fulfilling.

In the Love in the ____ series, Cherie and Jimmy relate to each other and people in general primarily through character-embellishing tall tales. So it's not surprising that, even after the couple drifts apart in Love in the Buff when Jimmy announces that he has to move to Beijing for work, Cherie and he still both remake their lives based on little fictions. And when Cherie and Jimmy's friends and loved ones can't meet the high expectations that the set up in Cherie and Jimmy's private stories, the nee personality traits that hey exhibit become the raw material for new stories.

For instance, Jimmy starts dating a Beijing girl named You-You (Mini Yang), a flight attendant, after she promises to repay a favor that Jimmy did for her by helping him "in bed." While Jimmy's thinking he'll get laid, You-You actually just wants to meet at a trendy bar where patrons are served food and drink in beds. But bear in mind: Jimmy only meets You-You after Eunuch tells him a yarn about flight attendants, saying that stewardesses can be sexually harassed twice before there are serious repercussions for their molester. A man sitting behind Eunuch overhears this and tries to grope one of You-You's fellow stewardesses. He immediately gets caught however since Eunuch was, uh, apparently mistaken! So Jimmy decides to meet You-You at the bed bar and checks to see if Eunuch’s new theory (Eunuch insists that You-You is sexually aroused by Jimmy) is true. But he only does this after Eunuch's story about groping women proves to be untrue.

The opposite dynamic is true of Cherie's post-Jimmy search for love. She first tries matchmakers that hook her up with their sons, like the one that misrepresents her son as a Tony Leung look-alike. But then, when another blind date turns out to actually match his mother's description, Cherie winds up stuck fishing her cell phone out of a public toilet while her best friend, now clearly enamored with a Huang Xiaoming look-alike (actually played by Hong Kong actor Huang Xiaoming), hits on Cherie's intended date. So Cherie winds up meeting Sam (Xu Zheng) instead, a guy she later realizes she wants to date because she thinks he is, personality-wise, Jimmy's complete opposite.

But the situation Cherie's in when she dates Sam is not an inversion of when she first started to date Jimmy in Love in a Puff. In fact, it's just like the circumstances that led Jimmy and Cherie to originally date each other. Whereas Jimmy chose to date Cherie knowing that she was already seeing somebody, Cherie is now cheating on Sam with Jimmy while Jimmy cheats on You-You with Cherie. Everybody's telling a different story in Love in the Buff, making it both a knotty and accomplished variation on Puff's meta-textual main theme and a very clever and resonant romantic comedy unto itself. This: this is the China Lion film to see.

Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in The Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, The New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, Extended Cut.