4:15 pm Jul. 1, 20111
It’s hard not to fall in love with the New York Asian Film Festival.
Subway Cinema, the festival’s programmers, pride themselves on screening the most inspired pop cinema you’ve probably never heard of. The festival hasn’t had a dull year yet, thanks to its mix of blockbuster hits like Hero, acclaimed Chinese director Zhang Yimou’s big-budget martial-arts epic, and fiercely independent films like Late Bloomer, a black-and-white neo-noir about a handicapped serial killer.
But the Subway people have also won on the strength of their sheer enthusiasm for the product, and the event: Since 2002, the New York Asian Film Festival has greeted attendees with free prize giveaways before every film screening and high-energy introductions from co-founder Grady Hendrix.
Now, ten years after they established the festival, the Subway gang (Daniel Craft, Hendrix, Paul Kazee, Goran Topalovic and Marc Walkow) is showing films at the Film Society at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater and at Japan Society, where they now co-program films for Japan Society’s annual “Japan Cuts” series.
The fancy venues are something new for them. In 2002 they screened films at the Anthology Film Archives. While the theater was accommodating, its air conditioning often didn’t work and they often had issues screening prints.
In fact, the professionalization of the festival is something new for them, too: the Subway Cinema group initially had to pay most of the costs themselves, using credit cards, and the event has never really made money. Despite healthy attendance, enthusiastic word of mouth, critical praise and reliance on volunteer labor (full disclosure: I volunteered to work the festival for three years, from 2003-2005), they have only ever managed to break even, at best.
“When we started there were 12 of us, and we decided to throw $1000 apiece into the pot,” Hendrix told me in an email. “And, in a puff of smoke, 7 of us disappeared. So we started all this with $5000. We broke even every year except 2005, when we were $1100 short of breaking even. So we all threw a second $1000 in the pot. Since then we've broken even every year.”
Today, 40 percent of the festival’s expenses are covered by sponsors and the rest are roughly covered by ticket sales. It’s no longer a chancy venture, thanks to the added exposure and clout that Lincoln Center provides.
Still, the festival has reacted to its improved financial circumstances by increasing the size of its ambition, not its profit. Last year, the organizers paid to fly in Hong Kong mega-stars Sammo Hung and Simon Yam, who were both honored with Star Asia Awards.
“When you're talking $12,000 for each business-class tickets from Hong Kong to NYC, that money goes fast,” Hendrix wrote. “So we always wind up putting expenses on our cards and crossing our fingers and hoping people show up at the festival so we can pay ourselves back. Each of us usually winds up carrying $8,000 - $18,000 of debt on their cards for the festival.”
Hendrix also said, “Guests aren't cheap, and when we blow a bunch of money on them, we're at least confident that those expenditures are covered by our sponsors.”
This year’s festival will feature several guest directors, including influential Hong Kong filmmaker Tsui Hark. Hark will be honored with a sidebar of his films that range from his acknowledged golden era in the ‘80s to the present, skipping all the half-cocked duds that he made in between. The festival will also screen rare prints of Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain and The Blade, as well as Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, Hark’s latest film. Hark will also introduce a screening of Dragon Inn, a milestone of martial arts movies that Hark is currently remaking in 3D.
Another notable guest at this year’s festival is South Korean filmmaker Ryoo Seung-wan. The martial arts comedy Arahan and boxing melodrama Crying Fist were the first films by Ryoo, a talented action choreographer-turned-filmmaker, to screen at the festival. Since then, the festival has screened all of his new films, including this year’s offering, The Unjust. Ryoo will introduce a screening of City of Violence, which is probably his best film to date, and is certainly the one with the best fight scenes.
In addition to its slate of new films, this year’s festival will feature several commemorative screenings to celebrate its tenth anniversary. Versus, Ryuhei Kitamura’s low-budget, Sam Raimi-esque debut feature, which still has a cult following. It’s the kind of offering the Subway group built the festival around in the early going.
Kitamura (Azumi, Midnight Meat Train) first arrived on the film scene with Versus, a goofy and often flat-out bizarre action-comedy about immortal monsters fighting each other in the woods. He’s largely responsible for turning a new generation of American filmgoers on to Japanese cult cinema. Versus is crude and silly but it has an infectious attitude. It’s what people meant when they talked about disreputable, non-arthouse “Asian cinema” a decade ago, when the festival started.
The best part about the New York Asian Film Festival is that there’s always something for everybody. From romantic comedies to drug-fueled trips to the darkest corners of the id, the festival has always managed to put together a stunning variety of movies. You can see the director’s cut of Takashi Miike’s remake of 13 Assassins (now with 20 minutes of extra footage!) or enjoy a rare print of the campy live-action adaptation of Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky, a ‘90s prison drama based on a hyper-violent manga by the same name.
Here’s hoping that the festival enjoys many more years at the Walter Reade.