New York Asian Film Festival/Japan Cuts 2011 Report 1 - Milocrorze, Sell Out, Last Days of the World, Bangkok Knockout, and Ninja KidsPosted on 07.01.11 by David @ 10:52 am
The New York Asian Film Festival is back, a little later than usual but as crazy as always, and once again at its fancy new home in the über-respectable Lincoln Center. This year, in addition to the usual parade of insanity, the Subway Cinema boys are bringing us a sidebar of Korean action thrillers, a wu xia cinema retrospective with special appearances by the godfather of the Hong Kong new wave, Tsui Hark himself, a special feature on the films of Taiwanese crowd pleaser Su Chao-pin, and anniversary screenings of midnight madness films Story of Ricky and Versus. The festival runs from July 1-14 and more information can be found here.
As usual, NYAFF 2011 is playing in conjunction with The Japan Society’s Japan Cuts festival, with a number of films co-presented by both series. Japan Cuts will be screening films at The Japan Society from July 7 until July 22. More information can be found here.
CSB will be providing joint coverage of both festivals throughout the next weeks, with reviews and interviews galore. For now, though, let’s start with some of the highlights (Milocrorze and Sell Out) and lowlights (BKO: Bangkok Knockout) from the July 4th weekend.
Milocrorze: A Love Story
A highlight of the festival so far, Milocrorze is a good old-fashioned Japanese freak-out in the vein of former festival favorites like Survive Style 5+ and Funky Forest. Less a coherent film than a loosely connected - though thematically simpatico and ingeniously linked - series of vignettes, Milocrorze never fails to dazzle the eye and engage the brain.
Fans of bizarre variety show Vermilion Pleasure Night will instantly recognize the style of that show’s primary creative force, Yoshimasa Ishibashi - the twisted mind behind The Fuccons and the generally louche atmosphere of absurdist skits and leggy go-go dancers. Like Vermilion Pleasure Night, style shifts along with plot, though romantic troubles remain at the heart of each story. The initial story of ginger kid Ovreneli Vreneligar – a name seemingly chosen to give the chipper narrator fits – takes place in a candy-colored wonderland that would not be out of place in a Saturday morning cartoon. The second thread follows “Youth Counselor” Besson Kumagai, a romantic advisor to young men who is a cross between Tom Cruise’s toxic pick-up artist in Magnolia and Austin Powers. The segment’s gonzo musical sequences and high momentum serves as a bridge to the final narrative, an extended pastiche/parody of yakuza films equal parts Mad Max and Zatoichi, culminating in a duel that juxtaposes the extreme slow motion technique of Kanye West’s recent Power video with the de rigueur one-against-many yakuza film climax, while throwing winking nods to classic ukiyo-e imagery.
Does it all have some deeper meaning? Maybe. Is it fun as hell? You bet. And I haven’t even mentioned the outstanding performance by Takayuki Yamada (13 Assassins), who essays all three central roles and proves equally adept at retro-styled musical numbers as at swordplay.
Even among film buffs, interest in Malaysian films remains a rarity in the West, especially compared to the films of neighboring Indonesia. Sell Out!, a rich stew of satire and cultural references, indicates some very interesting things are going on under the radar. I do not want to ruin any of the film’s pleasures by revealing them here, but Sell Out! pokes richly deserved fun at slow-moving arthouse fare and reality programming alike, and at both crass commerciality and those who criticize it, through the medium of Monty Python-esque absurdism and ludicrous musical numbers (including perhaps the first ever song devoted to the fine art of sucking up). The dialogue (mostly in English) crackles, the acting is sharp, and the film manages the neat trick of keeping its audience off-balance while being consistently funny.
Last Days of the World
Last Days of the World is a fascinating oddity, a pre-apocalyptic character study of a disaffected youth who reacts to the news that the world is going to end with a gleefully amoral determination to do whatever he wants. Kano - a ferret-faced, laconic Jonmyon Pe (Love Exposure, Cold Fish) in what should be a star-making turn – begins to have visions prophesying the end of the world. Perceiving himself as freed from the constraints of society, Kano, though not gratuitously violent, does not hesitate to use violence on any obstacle in the way of his short-term goals. Those goals, of course, are banally juvenile, as suits a high schooler - get laid, ditch the parents, steal a car – but Kano is so odd and out-of-touch with society that things rarely work out so straightforwardly. Throughout, director Eiji Uchida and star Pe build and maintain the audience’s doubts about Kano’s sanity such that the basic premise is always uncertain – is the world really ending or Kano just wrapped up in his own head. Last Days of the World is a great example of Japanese indie cinema does so very well – small-scale, character-focused films that commit to their outlandish premises.
BKO: Bangkok Knockout
BKO is sadly typical of the sort of action film the Thai film industry, and Panna Rittikrai in particular, churns out every year. BKO plays out like a stuntman’s demo reel, with a group of interchangeable heroes trapped in an abandoned building and forced to fight a goon squad for the entertainment of an assortment of wealthy, evil foreigners. While a legitimate argument can be be made that BKO’s plot is a clever meta-commentary on the state of the Thai action film, that cannot compensate for the lack of interesting characters or a decent script.
When I say the heroes are interchangeable I am perhaps not conveying the full lack of depth – the film hardly bothers to establish names for its main characters, let alone personality traits, and there are a few points where my brain wandered during the film and I lost track of who I was supposed to be rooting for. Like almost every Thai film, BKO is about 25 minutes longer than it ought to be, and scored with a mind-numbingly generic techno beat. Nevertheless, assuming you get a snack or check your messages during any scene when people are not fighting, martial arts fans will be rewarded with some excellent choreography and stunts, including some truly dangerous looking automobile maneuvers.
Takashi Miike continues to proves himself the most schizophrenic filmmaker working today. In the same year as his magnificent samurai epic 13 Assassins (not to mention his re-working of Harakiri), Miike has also directed Ninja Kids, a non-stop orgy of fart jokes, drool jokes, poop jokes and booger jokes aimed squarely at kids (albeit kids with a really bizarre sense of humor). Derived from a long-running anime television series and starring one of the most popular child actors in Japan, Ninja Kids is sure to be a big hit.
The premise is essentially a ninja Harry Potter (in fact, the lead even resembles a six-year-old version of Potter) and most of the fun lies in the incongruity of watching pint-sized first-graders wing deadly shuriken at each other and juggle high explosives. There is an attempt at a plot in the second half of the film, but it is more of an excuse to introduce dozens of oddball characters (presumably regulars of the series). None of it amounts to much and the stakes are remarkably low despite all the ostensibly deadly weaponry, but the laughs come frequently, the running time moves swiftly, and the film is considerably more fun that it has any right to be.
In addition to Ninja Kids, the NYAFF and Japan Cuts will be screening Takashi Miike’s masterpiece 13 Assassins (Japan 2004), which I previously reviewed here. Note though, that the NYAFF and Japan Cuts will be screening the domestic version of 13 Assassins which includes an additional 17 minutes of footage, not the shortened American cut.
In repertory, the NYAFF will also be screening Duel to the Death (Hong Kong 1983), an unjustly overlooked Hong Kong classic wu xia from Ching Siu-Tung, king of wild wire-fu. It has probably been a good 10 years since I’ve seen it, but the film is appreciably bonkers and successfully juxtaposes wackiness like kite-flying ninjas who use their naked bodies as a weapon with a genuine tragic sensibility.
Filed under: General and Movie Reviews and Movie Reviews: Japan and Contributors: David and People: Takashi Miike and Movie Reviews: Thailand and Venues: The Japan Society and Venues: Film Society at Lincoln Center and Film Festivals: New York Asian Film Festival 2011 and Film Festivals: Japan Cuts 2011 and People: Takayuki Yamada and Movie Reviews: Capsule Reviews and Movie Reviews: Malaysia