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NY Asian Film Festival Line-Up Comes to Claim Our Very Souls

By S.T. VanAirsdale

Sure, it's raining non-stop in the middle of May and I was wearing a scarf as recently as last week, but the hell with it: Summer's here, damn it, because like our city's twisted, beloved genre groundhogs, Grady Hendrix and Co. have thrust this year's New York Asian Film Festival line-up through the asphalt and into our blistered urban consciousness. And I mean that as a good thing; just thank them already.

Writer/director/star Hitoshi Matsumoto in the outlandish man-battles-monster comedy Dainipponjin, screening at this year's New York Asian Film Festival

I expect I'll have a word here with Hendrix before the seventh annual festival launches June 20 at IFC Center (it concludes July 6 following its co-presentation of eight selections in the partially overlapping Japan Cuts festival at Japan Society). In the meantime, I'm agog at this year's potential: the Grim Reaper and his talking dog in Accuracy of Death; Thailand's spectacular, all-time box-office champs King Naresuan 1 and 2; the uncompromising Korean film industry-as-slaughterhouse metaphor The Butcher; Takashi Miike's "nutso reimagining of American Westerns," Sukiyaki Western Django; the blockbuster Chinese war film Assembly; and sooooo much more (Johnnie To! Always 2 -- with a cameo from Godzilla!!) that it's embarrassing and kind of devastating, really, to admit I'm going to be out of town for the whole fucking thing.

But that's not your problem. You have to decide what you're seeing, so browse on after the jump (and keep an eye on Subway Cinema's site and new blog for more updates about appearances, extras and what-not).

ACCURACY OF DEATH (Japan, 2008) ­ sometimes a movie sounds like a bad idea: the Grim Reaper comes to Earth with a talking dog to evaluate the lives of potential dead people. But with Takeshi Kaneshiro playing the Grim Reaper, and set in 1988, 2008 and the near future, this flick turns out to be a light-footed romantic comedy that winds up turbo-charging your sense of optimism. Kaneshiro, a veteran of Wong Kar-wai, Zhang Yimou and John Woo films dominates this flick, and shows exactly what it is that a movie star does to earn those bags of cash. In his hands, every second of this film feels like pure gold.

ADRIFT IN TOKYO (Japan, 2007) - This is a movie about two men walking down the street. Seriously. That's it. But bear with, because isn't CITIZEN KANE
just about a guy who owns a sled? A scruffy law school student (Joe Odagiri, the Johnny Depp of Japan) is deep in hock to a thuggish, middle-aged debt collector who offers to forgive what he owes if the kid accompanies him on long walks through Tokyo. What sounds contrived takes about 10 minutes to settle into a loopy, at times hilarious, rhythm as the two stroll through the city trying to figure out how watch repair shops stay in business these days and pondering the plight of the pygmy hippopotamus. After seeing this flick you'll learn the soul-soothing pleasures of walking, and you'll never take the bus again. (Co-presented with JAPAN CUTS: Festival of New Japanese Film)

ALWAYS 2: SUNSET ON THIRD STREET (Japan, 2007) ­One of Japan's biggest hits, ALWAYS: SUNSET ON THIRD STREET rocked the New York Asian Film Festival back in 2006 and now the sequel is back to deliver even more mid-century melodrama about a neighborhood in Tokyo where everyone is struggling to make ends meet and get ahead in post-war Japan. It was a mega-hit in Japan and this time...Godzilla attacks. Seriously. And in case you missed it, we're bringing back the first ALWAYS (winner of 12 Japanese Academy Awards). (Co-presented with JAPAN CUTS: Festival of New Japanese Film)

ASSEMBLY (China, 2007) ­ China's second-biggest box office hit of 2007 sets new standards for the dirt-in-your-teeth war film. Taking place during China's Civil War of 1948, it's an epic that boils down to one question: how do veterans deal with the choices they made on the battlefield once the war is over and they've come home? Director Feng Xiaogang is China¹s biggest hit-maker, and his swordplay epic, THE BANQUET, opened last year's New York Asian Film Festival.

THE BUTCHER (Korea, 2007) ­The Korean film industry spent last year falling apart with big, glossy productions bombing at the box office, one after the other. This grotty mash-up of HOSTEL and THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE was made completely off the map, shot on video far outside the studio system, by first-time director Kim Jin-Won, and in it he depicts the Korean film industry as a bunch of pigs and rapists shooting snuff films for foreign audiences. The comparison to Korea's OLDBOY-inspired cinema of violence is hard to miss.

DAINIPPONJIN (Japan, 2007) ­Never has a comedy been this patient in setting up its audience. A mockumentary that starts out as the most boring movie ever made about the most boring man on earth suddenly switches gears when we discover that the government job he¹s complaining about is one that requires him to grow to enormous size and defend Japan from horrible giant monsters. While wearing purple underwear. Written, directed and starring Hitoshi Matsumoto, Japan's number one comedian, this is the movie CLOVERFIELD should have been, combining the lunacy of WWE smackdown with the insanity of THIS IS SPINAL TAP. Ever wanted to know what happens when giant monsters are in heat? See it here! (Co-presented with JAPAN CUTS: Festival of New Japanese Film)

DOG IN A SIDECAR (Japan, 2007) ­ It's easy to slam a coming of age movie because there're just too many of them and they usually follow the exact same set of dramatic beats. But DOG IN A SIDECAR sidesteps that problem and breathes new life into what has become a tired genre. It also marks the comeback film for actress Yuko Takeuchi (THE RING) who won six Best Actress awards for this film, playing the lazy, uncouth girlfriend of a single parent. Gentle and unambitious, this is a golden example of the small, well-made film that proves good things come in small packages.

FINE, TOTALLY FINE (Japan, 2007) ­A spiritual successor to previous NYAFF hit, THE TASTE OF TEA, this flick is almost impossible to describe. On the surface it charts a lazy love triangle between three losers who are hitting 30 and haven't gone anywhere in life. But that leaves out the ghost, the quest to create the world¹s best haunted house, how not to open a box of Kleenex, the worst way to sell a porno magazine, the joys of used bookstores and the world's biggest, child-killing chewing gum bubble. (Co-presented with JAPAN CUTS: Festival of New Japanese Film)

HAPPINESS (Korea, 2007) ­ Hur Jin-Ho has made his career out of looking at worn-out melodramas from new angles, resulting in some of cinema's most sob-worthy and exquisitely crafted romances like CHRISTMAS IN AUGUST and APRIL SNOW. Here he manages to make a love story between two sick people (he's got cirrhosis of the liver, she's got lung disease) feel like something fresh and tender by playing up the moments that get lost and playing down the big dramatic beats. It's an honest tear-jerker, where you feel like you don't have to sell yourself short in order to have a good cry.

KALA (Indonesia, 2007) ­ Joko Anwar blew away festival audiences with his hilarious JONJI'S PROMISE, but his follow-up film is not what anyone expected. A dark, alternate history film noir set in a version of Indonesia where everyone dresses like it's still the 1950's and where sudden, hideous violence waits around every corner in a black sedan, this conspiracy thriller slowly tightens its hand around your throat until darkness creeps in on the edge of your vision. A narcoleptic reporter and a gay cop are drawn into a murderous plot to find what's known as The First President's Treasure, while the city around them descends into lawlessness. A massive blockbuster in Indonesia, it¹s an unsettling, stylish walk into the dark at the end of the street.

KING NARESUAN 1 & 2 (Thailand, 2007) ­The number one and number two box office hits of all time from Thailand, these massive epics tell the life story of Thailand's warrior king, Naresuan. Full of sets dripping with gold, political intrigue that makes American politics look straight-forward and some of the biggest, most rousing action scenes you'll ever have the pleasure of sucking through your eyes. Imagine THE KING & I with the musical numbers replaced by herds of stampeding war elephants, six-foot-long rifles and bloodthirsty Amazons.

L: CHANGE THE WORLD (Japan, 2008) ­The DEATH NOTE movies were massive hits in Japan (and at last year's NYAFF) and now the latest installment in the series hits screens, courtesy of Hideo Nakata, director of the landmark horror film THE RING. This time out it¹s L, the teen, goth version of Sherlock Holmes who takes center stage. Slotted into the last 23 days of his life, this flick is a big budget summer blockbuster that sees this hunchbacked, candy-munching genius take on a terrorist cult armed with a flesh-melting virus.

M (Korea, 2007) ­ Lee Myung-Se has the best set of eyes in all of Korea, resulting in the visual extravagances of his action movie, NOWHERE TO HIDE, and his swordplay flick, DUELIST. Now he's turned those magic orbs on the ghost movie and created the divisive, infuriating, totally unique M, that's the closest you'll ever come to dreaming with your eyes open. A popular junk novelist has just blown his latest deadline but hasn't written a word of his new book because his high school sweetheart has suddenly shown up in town from out of the past. She may be real, or she may be a ghost, or she may be a memory, or there may be no difference between the three. Audiences practically tore the screen down when this deeply personal movie premiered, but when cinema owners tried to yank it out of theaters early, fans took to the streets in protest.

MAD DETECTIVE (Hong Kong, 2007) ­ Johnnie To reunites with actor Lau Ching-wan after seven years to make this crime flick that's like a high performance engine firing on all cylinders. Lau plays a cop who can see people's souls, fired from the force after sawing off his own ear and giving it to his commanding officer as a gift. Now he's pulled back in to solve a crime committed by another police officer and what unfolds is one of the blackest, darkest, most despairing films you'll ever see.

MISE EN SCENE SHORT FILM FESTIVAL ­ Korea's number one festival of short films comes back for a return engagement and this time we picked the shorts ourselves. There's the gruesome tale of a fluffy puppy out for revenge against the owners who abandoned it, a plot by zombies to control the Korean film industry, a gang of chickens who eat the moon, a company where contracts are settled by martial arts and a very strange story about the secret love child of famous British author John Fowles.

THE REBEL (Vietnam, 2007) ­ an old time Republic serial, pumped up on politics and super-charged with ONG BAK caliber action scenes, THE REBEL is the biggest box office hit ever to come out of Vietnam. Set in the 1920's, it's all about a secret agent for the colonial French government who is tasked with rounding up anti-French rebels and kicking them in the head until they die. Then, one day, he finds that he can't put down his own people anymore and he goes on the run. Wall-to-wall beat-downs, insane Vietnamese martial arts, and thrill-a-minute chases make this an adrenaline-charged, bloodied knuckled ode to Vietnamese freedom.

SAD VACATION (Japan, 2007) ­ Shinji Aoyama (EUREKA, ELI ELI LEMA SABACHTANI) is one of Japan's best kept secrets. This is part three of his unofficial Kita Kyushu trilogy which started with his first film, HELPLESS, continued with EUREKA and concludes with SAD VACATION (named after the Johnny Thunders song). No familiarity with the previous films is necessary. Instead, all you need to know is that Tadanobu Asano plays a guy who was abandoned early on by his mother and, after taking in a Chinese orphan left over from a human trafficking job gone wrong, he suddenly comes across her again as an adult. He's determined that vengeance will be his, but he finds out that blood is so much thicker than water it'll drown us all. (Co-presented with JAPAN CUTS: Festival of New Japanese Film)

SPARROW (Hong Kong, 2008) ­On the other end of the spectrum, Johnnie To must have fallen in love before he made SPARROW. This charming flick took three years to make and it's a sparkling, life-affirming film about a gang of pickpockets who cross paths with a mysterious femme fatale. An ode to rapidly-vanishing old Hong Kong, it feels like it¹s going to burst into song at any minute and contains some of To's most gorgeous, intricate and technically breathtaking set pieces. Watching this movie feels like soaking your soul in a big glass of cool, bubbly champagne for 87 minutes.

SUKIYAKI WESTERN DJANGO (Japan, 2007) ­Set to be released theatrically later this summer by First Look, Takashi Miike's English-language Spaghetti Western combines Shakespeare, YOJIMBO, Sergio Corbucci films and plants that grow tiny fetuses into an unholy car bomb of a movie that explodes in your face, showering the audience with a nutso reimagining of American Westerns. Everything you've ever wanted in a Takashi Miike movie, including Quentin Tarantino hamming his way through a cameo that rivals his appearance on The Golden Girls and more, more, more! It's bigger! Louder! Faster! Better! (Co-presented with JAPAN CUTS: Festival of New Japanese Film)

THIS WORLD OF OURS (Japan, 2007) ­One of the most astonishing debuts in recent years, 25-year-old director Ryo Nakajima was a hikikomori (a shut-in) who emerged from his room to make this digital howl of rage. Screening at the Vancouver Film Festival, Rotterdam Film Festival and winning three prizes at Japan's Pia Film Festival, it charts a continuum of anger that has the 9/11 bombings at one end and high school bullying at the other with gang rape, self-mutilation and school massacres in between. Think A CLOCKWORK ORANGE mixed with Shunji Iwai's ALL ABOUT LILY CHOU CHOU and scored to Beethoven.

UNITED RED ARMY (Japan, 2007) ­ Koji Wakamatsu, Japan's most controversial filmmaker, wraps up 45 years of moviemaking with this 3-hour, insanely researched epic about Japan¹s United Red Army faction, one of the world's most notorious terrorist groups. Director Wakamatsu is barred from entering the United States due to his political affiliations, but we will be conducting a live, satellite Q&A with him after the screening on July 5, and the screenwriter, Masayuki Kakegawa, will be attending the festival. (Co-presented with JAPAN CUTS: Festival of New Japanese Film)

YASUKUNI (China/Japan, 2008) ­This documentary about Japan's Yasukuni shrine to its war dead has become a cultural flashpoint in Japan, with several cinema chains refusing to screen it and elected officials calling for a boycott of the film, while right wingers are threatening to fire bomb screenings. A sprawling documentary about the protestors, right wing nationalists, thugs, patriots and misguided Americans who use the Yasukuni shrine as their stage, this documentary pits war against peace and national pride against xenophobic jingoism. The result will make all audiences deeply uncomfortable. (Co-presented with JAPAN CUTS: Festival of New Japanese Film)

Posted at May 22, 2008 8:55 AM

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