Monday, October 11, 2021

Fantasia/New York Asian Film Festivals 2021.09: The Asian Angel and Joint

No 2021.08? Well, what can I say, 2021's weird - not much marked as "Day 08" for Fantasia that I caught, and then it was off to the Big Apple!
So, this would have seemed like a bigger deal if I were posting these updates in a timely fashion, what with having gone twice as far since, but even vaccinated for three months in mid-August, I did a lot of hemming and hawing about whether I wanted to get in a metal tube, travel four hours to New York City, and then sit in theaters for a few hours a day before getting into another tube and going home. I don't know as it's actually a lot safer now as I write this in mid-October, but at the very least, I've clearly made my peace with it.

The bulk of the New York Asian Film Festival's activity this year was at the School of Visual Arts Theatre, a nice spot in Manhattan that near as I can tell had its own strict Covid protocols on top of those of New York State/City, so nothing but water allowed in, meaning no reason to take off your mask. For many of the shows, the room was well below capacity, although I didn't get much of a sense of how much that was the venue/festival limiting tickets and how much was the audience not being ready to show up. I don't really know any of the people behind NYAFF now that it's not associated with Subway Cinema, so it could be either.

For all the nervousness at the start, though, it was kind of great. I've mentioned on the blog a few times that I haven't watched nearly as much as I thought I would since getting back from vacation last March, even though I had a bunch of unwatched discs on my shelf and the backlog has only grown over time, but both decision paralysis at the sheer number of options, but by it being just less fun at home than in the theater. Getting back to a theater, with a curated slate and a bunch of people who like the same thing was a lot more fun than I thought it was going to be.

Filmmaker Q&As! Friday's late show had director Oudai Kojima, co-star/producer Jin-Cheol Kim, and moderator Karen Severns there for Joint. Kojima grew up in New York but works in Japan, so this was coming home for him. The thing he was most excited about was his star, Ikken Yamamoto, who from what I gather didn't have many professional credits before this, but he was the sort of guy where you could see the charisma immediately and where there's a certain amount of real-life experience that a lot of professional actors don't have. He also talked about how he wasn't really influenced by a lot of yakuza films, and while I didn't necessarily see that as the case at the time - it sure feels like one in structure - I see where he's coming from now. It's a movie about data mining, replacing employees with contractors, and corporate consolidation at its heart. Truth be told, most yakuza movies have an interest in legitimate business, either as a target or a metaphor, and I kind of feel like Joint might have worked better if it did that more explicitly.

It's also pretty darn stylish, especially for a micro-indie-type thing. You can see the places where it's stretched thin, but it kind of transforms into a look and atmosphere, which you can't exactly do on purpose or even necessarily a second time once you get some attention, but it will be interesting to see what this team can do when they've got some more resources behind them.

The Asian Angel

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 13 August 2021 in SVA Theatre Beatrice (New York Asian Film Festival 2021, DCP)

The Asian Angel is almost, but not quite, two road movies in different languages that got stuck together and tangled up, which occasionally plays into how sometimes people need to get things out even when the idea of people hearing and understanding is awful. That there's a romance involved is unlikely, but the filmmakers fundamentally understand how rickety the whole thing is, and make no apologies for giving the audience the movie they came to see.

It involves widowed novelist Takeshi Aoki (Sosuke Ikematsu) arriving in Seoul with son Manabu (Ryo Sato) in tow despite neither of them speaking Korean and general tension between the countries as bad as they've been in decades, if not since World War II. Takeshi's brother Toru (Joe Odagiri) has been there a while, running a shading import/export business and giving Takeshi the impression that there's work and Japanese-language schools they can afford which may not be the actual case. Nearby, the Choi family has their own tensions; Seol ("Moon" Choi Hee-Seo) is seeing the last vestiges of her hopes to become a pop singer vanish, brother Jung-Woo (Kim Min-Jae) isn't really doing well with the family business that their parents left him, and just-past-teenage sister Po-Mu (Kim Ye-Eun) is bitter that there's not a lot left for her as a result. Their paths have already crossed a couple of times before they're on the same train - the Aokis chasing a deal that might save Toru's business, the Chois visiting their parents' grave - but Manabu's tendency to wander off and an encounter with Seol's agent winds up with the two groups thoroughly intermingled.

Writer/director Yuya Ishii tends to build his movies around lingering wounds, at least as far as the ones that have made the North American festival circuit go (which ironically does not include The Great Passage, his biggest hit, which appears more upbeat), and that's the case here: Whatever modest success Takeshi and Seol may have had at the starts of their careers is thoroughly spent, and their brothers' businesses are both a bad break or two from just not being there any more. These families haven't been broken, but don't necessarily have a lot to say to each other at the moment; everything to be said has been said, and while they need each other, Toru doesn't really know what he's got for Takeshi to do and Jung-Woo can't really articulate to Seol why he thinks visiting their parents' graves will help.

Finding themselves thrown together with the other family doesn't seem like it should work - early scenes of Takeshi and Seol talking past each other smartly play out as her recognizing his good intentions as being somewhat patronizing, and between Ishii and actors Sosuke Ikematsu and Choi Hee-Seo, even the subtitle-reading audience has a clear idea of what they understand and what they don't, and when they later discover that each speaks a little English, there's a bit of relief at finally being able to communicate, but also a need to be clear and put effort into their words. There's a sort of paradox to how these people are communicating - there are a lot of scenes where it's just a relief to get something out without or to listen and sympathize without details, but also care to how having to use a foreign language forces one to consider what they think and feel rather than just lean on expectations.

As introspective as that is, the movie and cast are often lively. Takeshi and Seol make an enjoyable pair because her cynical cool plays well against his haplessness, a shared frustration at things not going as they should uniting them. As the brothers, Joe Odagiri and Kim Min-Jae supply contrasting sorts of easygoing charm; Odagiri's Toru is almost convincing in his amoral detachment until his weakness for Korean girls shows up or he has to stand up for his friends and family but doesn't want to make a big deal out of it, the sort of layered performance that is kind of sneakily good because Ishii doesn't let him usurp Ikematsu as the movie's center, while Kim Min-Jae is kind of familiar in presenting Jung-Woo's working-class bluster while making his pride in Seol's talent the sort of genuine that annoys her but doesn't break into cringe for the audience. Kim Ye-Eun feels like she'd have something really interesting to do if this were just the Chois' story - Po-Mu is often sulky and snarky and she clearly resents being a side character even if she doesn't break the fourth wall about it.

Their stories are all mixed up, and it clearly takes a bit of effort to keep them that way. Ishii doesn't necessarily have to work hard to build things up in order to knock them over - there's something impressively well-calibrated about how he handles the line between "we're poor but stable" and "your car breaking down on a cold night is really dangerous" - but he puts the families into a number of small, disposable tricky situations to keep things moving, with the climax a more urgent one rather than something the others were building to. The angel of the title winds up serving as an odd bit of glue, like Takeshi, Seol, and their families need a little something extra to bind them than just a shared situation.

And yet even without it, the two bickering families have been so thoroughly intertwined by the end that imagining their journeys as merely parallel seems impossible, like this was one story from the start. It's an impressive bit of alchemy, even if it does, maybe, take a little extra time for the combined unit to settle and cool.

Full review at eFilmCritic


* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 13 August 2021 in SVA Theatre Beatrice (New York Asian Film Festival 2021, DCP)

Joint is the sort of festival movie you grade on a bit of a curve - it's so thoroughly independent that even the middle-aged star is a complete newcomer and the strains on the filmmakers' resources are easy to see, but there's enough that feels new and unique done well enough that one is glad to have seen it. The film's flaws make themselves plain as it goes along, but it's filled with stuff worth giving a bit of attention.

It opens in somewhat familiar fashion, with yakuza associate Takeshi "Take" Ishigami (Ikken Yamamoto) being released from prison after two years. He takes a job doing construction from a reformed friend, but he's living in a motel until his parole is over and he can go back to Tokyo and his old work compiling lists of potential victims for the network's scammers, sourced in part by Korean immigrant Jung-Hi (Kim Jin-Cheol). It's a bit of a different world than when he went in - the crooks are making their cold calls from moving cars, the gangs are outsourcing more, and the investment he makes in a software start-up to launder his earnings may be his most successful job even if he doesn't really understand any of it.

For all that the director protested that this wasn't particularly influenced by other yakuza films, it nevertheless has a similar feel: From Battles without Honor and Humanity forward, at the very least, these movies have always been businesslike and dense with information; where the best-known films of this genre focus on gang leadership, director Oudai Kojima and writer Ham-R tend to cast their gaze a little lower on the totem pole. The film is pointed in examining how that milieu has changed, but then, these movies have been grappling with these gangs eyeing respectability for decades.

In fact, it arguably sticks too close to gangster tropes as it goes on. This genre has always been reflections of the legitimate world, and there's a neat angle here in how Take is effectively a contractor and the yakuza less the sort of loyal institutions that Japanese companies used to be (director Kojima grew up in New York, and I'm somewhat curious to what extent he's drawing from American versus Japanese experiences). The sharpest and most fascinating element may be how these scam artists and frauds are evolving into and merging with Big Data and venture capital, a new brand of hidden powers whose artificially-intelligent apps are direct correlations to Take's knack for pulling the useful items out of a mass of information. It's a parallel that intrigues but which Kojima and Ham-R can't quite make into a story, only lightly touching on what's going on at the software company and falling back on what's going on at the top of the gang during the last act, which isn't really important relative to what Take's up to.

And the audience is invested in Take, in large part because Ikken Yamamoto is a heck of a find. It's his first credited performance, let alone lead, but he walks through the film with a smile that's not just charming but signals that Take is completely at ease with who and what he is, cheerfully confused when his friend tries to get him to go straight and sitting in on business meetings with this perfect blend of ignorance and second-hand menace. There's an easy three-way chemistry between him, Kim Jin-Cheol and Kim Chang-Bak, work friends who split when it becomes clear just how amoral one is. On top of that, what seems like a side effect of indie film production and dicey continuity - Take's hair and the rest of his look changes between scenes as they're filmed weeks apart - becomes sort of meaningful, as his "legitimate" business takes the fore and he becomes a sort of chameleon even though he's clearly the same guy underneath.

The whole package isn't quite the sum of its best parts, but between Yamamoto and the angle Kojima takes in seeing the yakuza as something more specific than just corporate analogs, I'm hoping that someone with some resources sees Joint and decides to find out what this group can do with a budget, whether it's something along the same lines or not.

Full review at eFilmCritic

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