Thursday, July 13, 2017

New York Asian Film Festival 2017.03: Village of No Return, Japanese Girls Never Die, Mon Mon Mon Monsters, and Blood of Youth

Four films the day before, a relatively early walk back to the AirBNB, sleeping on something pretty couch-like, ad then back at it again. I started the day with Bong Joon-ho's Okja, and if I'm lucky and nobody chases me away from this AC outlet, the next post down (or up) will be what I thought of that weird little movie and Netflix funding and releasing them almost imperceptibly in theaters. If not, hey, it's Fantasia time!

For better or for worse, Okja didn't quite line up with what was going on across the street in the Walter Reade, so I had some time to kill afterward, mostly hanging around the little park in the middle of Lincoln Center, then it was back across the street to the Reade for another four-movie marathon.

It was a pretty good day - the sort of fun genre festival day where, even though the films are going for something pretty visceral, there at least a little to unpack as one ruminates upon the movies later. I was kind of let down that I didn't get any Hong Kong over the weekend, but sometimes that's how it goes.

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So, with my phone telling me I had 2% storage left and a trip coming up, I offloaded everything to my Windows laptop, which I left in Boston, forgetting that I would be trying to post this from my Chromebook in Montreal. So, come back in August to see Yang Shu-peng introducing his film Blood of Youth

I may not have been able to get through his movie because it was the end of the day and I was sleepy, but the guy's got an interesting story; he never went up through the usual film-school channels, instead working as a firefighter before making his first two films, both period pieces, with Blood of Youth being his first contemporary picture. To me, this sounds like the hard way to go about it, but he pointed out that censorship is more of a problem in present-day stuff. It is one thing to show corrupt officials in the Imperial Court 500 years ago, quite another to imply a police officer is anything but completely dedicated in today's People's Republic of China, even though human nature hasn't really changed.

Anyway, the movie ended I was spit out onto the streets of New York, exceptionally pleased to find a 24-hour-diner not terribly far from the length of sidewalk where Megabus departs from Boston (not particularly close, admittedly, being in the opposite direction from the subway station, but when it's 12:15am and your bus doesn't leave until 3am, you've got some wiggle room). Can't really say I got a decent night's sleep on the way home, but the employer gave us Monday 3 July off without either calling it a paid holiday or making us use time-off, so I had time to atch up later in the day.

And now, I am in Montreal, getting ready to start the next festival! I'll be at The VIllainess and Jojo's Bizarre Adventure (amusingly, The Villainess will close NYAFF a few days after opening Fantasia, so even though one festival is "before" the other, the movie goes the opposite direction), so come say hi!

Jian wang cun (The Village of No Return)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 2 July 2017 in The Film Society of Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater (New York Asian FIlm Festival 2017, DCP)

If The Village of No Return is meant as satire - an idea I am more amenable to now than I was walking out of it - then it's either the sort that plays much better to its home audience or which attempts to bury its true intentions under enough other material that they can easily be lost or distorted. After a few days considering it off and on, I'm coming around to liking Chen Yu-hsun's ambition and some of what he seems to be trying to say, although he often makes a cluttered mess of it.

Though the film opens away from the village of the title, it gets there soon enough, as merchant "Big Pie" Chu (Ban Zan) arrives home with a secret mission from a nearby lord and rumors that there may be a railroad coming through. His beautiful wife Autumn (Shu Qi) is waiting, although it's not like she has a choice - she was a gift to him and has a shackle around her ankle after her previous attempts to escape and find her true love Dean Wang, who was supposed to return after a year making his fortune in the capital but has been gone three. Even more notable, though, is lay monk "Rainbow" Fortune Tien (Wang Qianyuan), who carries with him a mysterious artifact - the "Worry Ridder" helmet, which can extract troublesome memories from one's head, expelling them as tiny cocoons. Which sounds nice, but before long he's used it to erase the memories of everyone in the village, telling them that he is chief, Autumn is his wife "First Flower", and their goal is to help him dig for a long-buried treasure. Autumn is not just a pretty face, though, and has an inkling that something isn't right even before Dean (Tony Yang Yo-ning) finally comes home.

Even before Rainbow shows up, there's a fair amount of misdirection going on - Big Pie is meant to provoke the dangerous Cloud Clan of assassins into an attack, giving the lord cover to intervene and be seen as a savior rather than an aggressor - although the film seems to forget about it for much of the running time in much the way that the brainwashed characters do. Throw in the fact that the assassins maintain their cover by effectively being the country's postal service, and the film is actually built on a very solid theme of how knowledge is power in a very real sense, and tyrants will re-write the actual facts of the situation to serve their own purposes (and, as a key scene or two implies, even a relatively benevolent leader may find it hard to resist that temptation). Chen and the production design team are also cute with how they use the Worry Ridder - it's a whimsical design that doesn't seem out of place in this sort of period comedy at all, but it has a user interface, and that doesn't seem like it's just an amusing anachronism but commentary on the present.

Full review on EFC.

Azumi Haruko wa Yukuefumei (Japanese Girls Never Die aka Azumi Haruko Is Missing)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 2 July 2017 in The Film Society of Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater (New York Asian FIlm Festival 2017, DCP)

Japanese Girls Never Die looks like it should be trickier to get a handle on than it is, cross-cutting as it does between two or three related stories and putting what looks like a mystery at the center. But for as much fun as puzzle-boxes are, director Daigo Matsui never lets this aspect of it overwhelm the story. We spend more time watching Haruka and Aina and how they individually feel diminished for being different types of young women in modern Japan, less trying to puzzle out how their stories will connect, and as a result, both the bits tie in and those that don't feel like a bonus.

We're introduced to two or three threads right away, as Haruko Azumi (Yu Aoi) seemingly vanishes outside a convenience store in the time that it takes a camera to pan back and forth, a group of three young people spray paint a stencil on a wall, and a classroom or two's worth of schoolgirls rowdily fills a movie theater. Soon enough, we're flashing back to get to know folks better - Haruko still lives at home at the age of 27, working in the office of a small business where senior office lady Hiroko Yoshizawa (Maho Yamada) does all the work and the two men in charge don't even pretend to treat the women equally; her friend Hitomi (Serina) is marrying a wealthy older man, but she's looking at Yuji Soga (Huwie Ishizaki), a slacker from her high-school class still working at a local convenience store. Speaking of high-school classmates, 20-year-old Yukio Toagashi (Taiga) just loaned his friend Manabu Mitsuhashi (Shono Hayama) a documentary on a graffiti artist, and though they don't turn out to be particularly talented taggers, Haruko's missing-person poster catches their eye, as does Aina Kinami (Mitsuki Takahata), another classmate studying to be a nail stylist whom they make part of the gang in part because she seems like she'd be easy even if she is clingy. There are also news reports about a gang of teenage girls attacking single men out alone, but it's initially hard to register whether these scenes are happening in the background of the other stories or on their own.

For all that Matsui and screenwriter Misaki Setoyama (adapting a novel by Mariko Yamaguchi) seem to be jumping around, their focus is surprisingly tight: Haruko and Aina are both young women pulled back into the orbits of the men they went to high school with, maybe looking to reconnect with a time when more seemed possible even though these guys don't seem to be particularly invested in anything right now or interested in treating them well. Haruko and Aina may not have the exact same story, but there are certainly enough similarities that there's a certain tension to the idea that Aina could wind up on a poster of her own, chewed up by the same world that seems to have no place for a woman other than marriage to some deeply flawed man (or if not flawed, then from so far afield that a woman must be exceptionally lucky to find him).

Full review on EFC.

Bao gao Lao Shi! Guai Guai Guai Guai Wu! (Mon Mon Mon Monsters)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 2 July 2017 in The Film Society of Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater (New York Asian FIlm Festival 2017, DCP)

The jokey stammer in the title of "Mon Mon Mon Monsters" implies a playful irony that is not there at all; the latest from Giddens Ko doesn't quite take pleasure in its cruelty, but it is unflinching in how it uses school bullying as its backdrop for a supernatural horror story. A lot of viewers might hit the point of enough being enough or outright disbelief even before the dismemberment starts in earnest, although they probably shouldn't.

Even before the story proper starts, it's clear that Ko is looking at empathy for the marginalized, as the first thing the audience sees is a convenience store operated by an old woman who probably should have been able to retire years ago trying to get her developmentally-disabled grandson to learn how to make change, while chasing away a homeless man. From there, we go even further around to see a pair of ghouls - humanoid creatures somewhere on the continuum between vampires and zombies. The sun coming up, they retreat even further, into boxes that seem too small to contain their spindly bodies. That the first image of the undead is that they are vulnerable is important, as is the fact that this sort of cruelty exists outside of high school.

High school, on the other hand, is where Lin Shu-wei (Teng Yu-kai) is currently having things thrown at him at the head of the class as teacher Ms. Li (Deng Yu-kai practically smirks; he's been accused of stealing the money for the class trip. When he brings proof that bully Duan Ren-hao (Kent Tsai) and his friends Guo-feng (Lai Jung-cheng) and Wei-zhu (Tao Bo-meng) did it and accused Lin for laughs, her response is that it's no good to throw accusations around and assigns them to do some community service together. This leads to coming back to try and steal from a practically-catatonic old veteran at night, when this neighborhood of forgotten souls is the ghouls' hunting grounds. They barely escape, capturing the smaller ghoul (Lin Pei-hsin), taking it back to the school's abandoned pool house and starting to torture it in the way little psychopaths who find someone who can't talk and seems to regenerate from injury will do. Lin doesn't like it, but goes along both because he's now more afraid of his bullies and because being part of a secret makes him feel special. He does try and research the beast, eventually finding a story of people who went missing from a voodoo cult decades ago. One looks like their captive, and the other is her sister (Eugenie Liu) - and in addition for a hunger for human flesh, she seems to have the instincts necessary to track her kid sister.

Full review on EFC.

Shao Nian (Blood of Youth)

N/A (out of four)
Seen 2 July 2017 in The Film Society of Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater (New York Asian FIlm Festival 2017, DCP)

I'll be honest here - this was movie #5 on the day counting Okja, and I was wiped-out enough to drift in and out a lot. Which would normally be a recipe for disaster with a movie involving unreliable narrators, long recurrent flashbacks, computer hacking, and more on top of that. The thing is, I never really felt lost, no matter how many micro-naps seemed to invade my viewing. I was distinctly aware that I lacked details, but I could pretty much follow along.

Unfortunately, as much as I could follow what was going on, I didn't much care. Maybe a few more of those details would have helped, but, the trouble is, it's got an ending that basically says that a bunch of those details weren't real, and while I kind of suspected that from what we saw of the big flashback scene, that seems like it might make things worse; there's enough to grab onto the fact that the movie is lying to you, but not enough to make the alternatives interesting.

Blood of Youth didn't do much for me one way or another, but I didn't exactly give it a fair shot. Given that director Yang Shu-peng is apparently a favorite of the NYAFF guys, I'll certainly be on the lookout for this when it shows up under more manageable circumstances.

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