8:14 am Jun. 29, 2012
Rather than rest on their laurels, the film curators of Subway Cinema have booked another slate of risky and exciting titles for the New York Asian Film Festival.
The festival, now 12 years old and celebrating its third year collaborating with the Film Society at Lincoln Center, caters to a multitude of tastes from several Asian countries. And with a number of high-profile guests in attendance, this year’s iteration should be a highlight of New York City’s film calendar.
The two week-long event begins this Friday at the Walter Reade Theater (and continues later at the Japan Society) with Vulgaria, a frequently gross but charming comedy about show business from young Hong Kong filmmaker Edmond Pang.
Pang will be in attendance at this year’s festival and will introduce both Vulgaria and Love in the Buff, a winning sequel to the thoughtful and bittersweet romantic comedy Love in a Puff. But the real Pang-related draw this weekend is Pang Ho-Cheung’s First Attempt, an afternoon screening of two of Pang’s earliest films. Shot when he was still in high school, these two short films will be screened with live comedic commentary from Pang, who apparently is fond but not all that fond of the shorts.
The list of prominent dignitaries at the festival this year will also include martial artist Donnie Yen and director Chan-Wha Chung, who will be presenting the essential 1972 chop socky staple King Boxer (also known as Five Fingers of Death).
Of the two Pang-directed features screening this year, Vulgaria is probably the better entry point into Pang’s body of work, since Love in the Buff works best when viewed as a companion piece to Love in a Puff.
In Vulgaria, Chapman To plays a jaded movie producer who regales a class of jaded film students with professional stories about having sex with a donkey, working with a triad boss who is obsessed with unusual meat and poultry, and getting a blow job from a woman with Pop Rocks in her mouth. These episodes are the building blocks of Pang’s vignette-driven comedy. It’s what you’d get if State & Main were smuttier and had more jokes about product placement and Al Qaeda.
Opening night festivities conclude with a midnight screening of The Boxer’s Omen, a gore-soaked 1983 supernatural thriller featuring some of the most lurid and bizarre make-up effects committed to celluloid. The brother of a badly hurt Hong Kong boxer travels to Thailand and soon becomes involved in a centuries-old fight between some Thai white magicians and an evil black magician. Come for the cultural tourism, stay for the nauseating blood-spraying, bat-vomiting, tentacle-slapping, monk-fighting action.
And the night after that, the festival will feature Goke, Bodysnatcher from Hell, a weird 1968 Japanese riff on The Invasion of the Bodysnatchers with more anti-Vietnam messages and Mario Bava-esque magenta lighting cues. A passenger plane goes down in the middle of the desert, leaving its passengers stranded and soon the victims of an alien that burrows into people’s heads and leaves a massive gash. That omnipresent vagina-like scar is meant to give the film a fear-of-the-sexual-revolution subtext.
There are also a number of exceptional new films, like Scabbard Samurai, the latest film by Japanese comedian-turned-filmmaker and NYAFF regular Hitoshi Matsumoto (Big Man Japan, Symbol). It’s a surreal fairy tale about a self-loathing comedian’s relationship with his daughter. Set in feudal Japan, the comedian (Matsumoto playing a caricature of himself) has to make his feudal master, a young, sick boy, laugh in order to survive.
With his head on the chopping block, Matsumoto’s sullen funnyman tries in vain to find the courage needed to make the incurious noble-child crack a smile. But in the process, Matsumoto’s character discovers that he’s teaching his own daughter the wrong lesson by trying so desperately to save his own neck. Scabbard Samurai doesn’t end where you think it might, but it is intensely moving and very funny, too.
The festival also features a stacked line-up of repertory screenings. A double feature of the first two films in the Infernal Affairs trilogy, the dirty cop drama series whose first entry was the inspiration for The Departed, sounds pretty terrific.
There will also be a screening of SPL: Sha Po Lang (better known in America as Kill Zone), a hard-boiled action film.
Also, Oldboy, the still unnerving South Korean revenge thriller, is a good one. It will be introduced at the festival by star Min-sik Choi.
It’s programming like this that makes the festival one of the city’s indispensable film events.