Sunday, July 10, 2011

New York Asian Film Festival Day 02: Punished, 13 Assassins (Original Japanese Cut), Shaolin, and Raw Force

Though I had been planning to go to NYAFF this year anyway, the how and when turned out to be a little different than expected. My original plan had been to ride up to Maine with my brother Matt on the 2nd/3rd of July, spend some time visiting family from grandparents who are seldom seen since their move to Florida to my very newborn nieces, get back in time for 4th of July fireworks in Boston, and then head to New York on the 9th, see a full day of movies, and then head back for the Somerville Silents on the 10th.

Fortunately, my brother's availability was different, so my trip south got pushed up a week and north pushed back, which meant I got two days in New York instead of one, and since I'd already seen Machete Maidens Unleashed!, five shows a day would just fit one of their $99 ten-show. Unfortunately, getting there took a bit longer than expected - bus left a little late, driver took a pit-stop in Connecticut, #1 line took a bit longer than I'd hoped, had to find my way around Lincoln Center... By the time that was done, it was fifteen minutes too late for Bangkok Knockout - which, ironically, would have been my midnight movie the next week, but it's also playing Fantasia, so it's all good.

That did give me time for lunch, which I had at Lansky's. Great big pastrami sandwich and a white chocolate/raspberry shake. And you know how most places will give you a roll of some sort before the meal? Lansky's put a whole warm mini loaf of banana bread on the table. I approve of that, and wound up eating it through the next two movies.

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And there's the one guest who was in town - Takayuki Yamada - who was mostly there to talk about Milocrorze: A Love Story - but was good enough to come talk to us about 13 Assassins as well. As you might expect, Miike is like a lot of people who create anarchic, seemingly made-up-as-they-went-along movies - a guy who puts a lot of thought into every small detail and expects them to be executed exactly. He's a very demanding, pushy guy from the sounds of it, which makes me wonder how well that adapted to something like Ninja Kids!!!, which had a lot of very young children in the cast.

But Ninja Kids!!! is the next day's movies. For now, the four I saw on Saturday:

Bou Ying (Punished)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 2 July 2011 at Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater (New York Asian Film Festival 2011)

Punished levels with the audience pretty quickly, opening with two scenes that don't say everything but make it clear that this movie is less about resolutions than the process of getting there. Later on, it spells out just what the English-language title is really referring to. It can afford to tip its hand, though, because it's made by guys who know their crime and holds a couple of key bits in reserve.

The two flash-forwards that open the film are the aftermath of a kidnapping - Hong Kong property developer Wong Ho-Chin (Anthony Wong Chau-sang) and his driver/bodyguard Yao Kai-chor (Richie Ren) have caught up with the people who kidnapped Wong's daughter Daisy (Janice Man) and the results are ugly. From there we jump back, getting a look at the events that bring Wong and "Chor" to this point and following them afterward, and that's going to go some dark places: Chor was once a criminal himself before Wong took him in, and still has contacts he can call on. Wong, meanwhile, got to the top of the heap by being ruthless and uncompromising, and while he is far from the world's warmest parent, nobody attacks his family without paying a steep price.

Anthony Wong is a familiar face from a huge number of supporting roles - I've seen the hard-working actor in three films this year alone, and that's just what what has made it to theaters in the United States. He takes the lead here, and it's a terrifically forceful performance. Wong Ho-chin is a demanding man, the sort whose more benevolent emotions seem to have been burned away over the years, and there is a certain amount of this personality that suggests there's not much left to Ho-chin but residual ambition, but it's finely observed: There is a difference in the way a petty tyrant carries himself and the manner of a man who loves his daughter but can't think of any way to handle her self-destruction other than to be an autocrat. Wong dives into the worst case scenario of "father knows best"and emerges fascinatingly broken and confused on the other side, aware of his faults and struggling to understand why he commands such loyalty.

Full review at EFC.

J├╗san-nin no shikaku (13 Assassins) (original Japanese cut)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 2 July 2011 at Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater (New York Asian Film Festival 2011)

Director Takashi Miike's career has often been defined by the bizarre; even his recent run of PG-rated blockbusters for the whole family have frequently been weird. Watching his last movie to make a little noise in North America (Sukiyaki Western Django), I was struck by how the strange elements masked a guy who could deliver some excellent straight-up action and adventure, and found myself wondering if his skill would be appreciated as much as his vision if he played it straight for once. 13 Assassins answers that question with a resounding "yes", although it's still got its odd moments, especially in its original Japanese cut.

Lord Naritsugu (Goro Inagaki) is a monster, the sociopath half-brother of a shogun who rapes, kills, and mutilates as he pleases, and to make matters worse, he's about to be appointed to the council. After a retainer uses his hara-kiri to deliver attention to this problem, samurai lord Doi (Mikijiro Hira) is given a vague directive to make the problem go away. To this end, Sir Doi retains Shinzaemon Shimada (Koji Yakusho), a righteous samurai who has had little reason to spill blood in this time of peace. Shimada, knowing that Naritsugu has an army at his disposal - commanded, naturally, by Shimada's old classmate Habei (Masachika Ichimura) - gathers a force of his own: There will be a dozen of them, from old friends to ronin swordsman Hirayama (Tsuyoshi Ihara) to Shimada's untested nephew Shinrouko (Takayuki Yamada), with the number climbing to thirteen when Koyata (Yusuke Iseya), the lowly bandit who guides them through the woods, opts to join their party.

It all builds, of course, to a spectacular final confrontation, where the 13 would-be assassins must confront not the fifty soldiers they were expecting, but over two hundred, and while the righteousness of their cause doesn't count for much, the ability to choose and prepare the battlefield will prove crucial. That makes for an amazingly balanced battle, even if it does give Koyata reason to actually state a variation of the Inverse Ninja Rule out loud ("you samurai are useless, and even more useless in great numbers!"). Still, it's the kind of set piece whose individual pieces could each be the climax of an impressive movie, effortlessly moving between large-scale action with surprises around every corner and one-on-one sword fights, with plenty of room to sneak character bits in.

Full review at EFC.

Xin Shao Lin S (Shaolin)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 2 July 2011 at Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater (New York Asian Film Festival 2011)

Benny Chan's Shaolin is not a remake of any of the Shaw Brothers films that focused on that legendary temple and its monks (though only fifty-odd years gone at the time, Gordon Liu-starring movies like The 36th Chamber of Shaolin helped to cement its myth). It touches on the same sort of themes - finding inner peace through martial prowess and ultimately standing up against a vicious warlord - but is its own sort of epic.

In this one, the Shaolin temple does not stand aloof from the needs of the nearby people, but opens its doors to aid the refugees left homeless and injured by the war constantly waging around them. As one battle ends, they are confronted by General Hou Chieh (Andy Lau) and his second-in-command Tsau Man (Nicholas Tse), and Hou, shall we say, does not acquit himself admirably. Hou's scheming will soon find itself repaid in kind, though, as he and his wife (Fan Bingbing) find themselves targets at a dinner where he'd planned to eliminate a fellow general. Injured and broken, he is forced to seek sanctuary in the temple, where only Wudao (Jackie Chan), the cook, will have anything to do with him. Meanwhile, a group of younger monks sneak out of the temple to steal food and medicine, and Tsau starts conducting business with western arms dealers.

Benny Chan has been a prolific director in Hong Kong for a long time, although he never gained the same fame outside the area as John Woo, Tsui Hark, or even Corey Yuen. Here, though, he presides over a grand spectacle with elaborate action sequences and an operatic plot. and in some ways he seems a curious choice: Many of the big-budget historical action epics that make their way to the US from China are made by respected directors like Zhang Yimou taking a stab at making a blockbuster, rather than genre workhorses like Chan being given a chance to "elevate" their work. This, perhaps, gives Shaolin a slightly different feel from many of its brethren; an unabashedly pulpy atmosphere amid the theatrics. Chan's characters harness or plow through their suffering rather than relish it, and fights are exciting rather than beautiful.

Full review at EFC.

Raw Force (aka Kung Fu Cannibals)

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 2 July 2011 at Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater (New York Asian Film Festival 2011)

Though Machete Maidens Unleashed! is not a great documentary, I support it playing as many festivals and repatory theaters as possible, because it gives the programmers an opportunity to pull something nutty out of the archives to play afterward. The nutty thing they pull out likely also won't be any good, but it will be made with an infectuous enthusiasm. Thus, a 35mm print of Raw Force is pulled out from some archive, and it's not well-made at all, but it's a lot of fun at midnight in a crowded theater.

There's an island somewhere in the Pacific where, legend has it, old martial-arts experts would go to live out their life in exile. A group of martial-arts enthusiasts from California aims to explore it, booking passage on a cruise ship that will also stop in the Philippines. This proves to be a doubly bad idea - a group of expatriate crooks regularly bring nubile young girls there in exchange for their weight in jade, because the monks living on the island believe that consuming human flesh will allow them to live forever and raise the dead.

The movie has a little bit of everything from the major exploitation-flick food groups: Kung fu, zombies, gratuitous nudity, weird comedy... The basics. The execution often varies as widely as the genre does at times - within a single fight scene, the audience will see some good choreography and several cast members (most notably, Jillian Kesner as a bikini-clad beauty on vacation from the LAPD SWAT team) selling the action extremely well alongside bits where people go down from blows that whiffed by a good six inches or so. An action scene where pirates attack the ship is actually fairly well-done (happily interrupting some fitfully amusing comedy), until the fire starts, at which point the low-budget effects work rears its ugly head. It's a weird but not unpleasant mix - the sort of B-movie where the audience can laugh at the low production values but which does several things just well enough for a good deal to be enjoyed without irony.

Full review at EFC.

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