The New York Asian Film Fest at Lincoln Center (ending July 16th) does something unique among festivals and within an ostensibly “limiting” premise. It is both comprehensive and fluid, and I might suggest it is comprehensive precisely because it is fluid. While generating a swathe of Asia’s most thoughtful, inventive and boundary breaking cinema, Executive Director Samuel Jamier stages intersectional themes and motifs, further foregrounds Asian diversity, and presents intercultural conversations spoken through cinematic technique. Notably, NYAFF 2017 contains more LGBTQ-inclusive features than ever before, such as Rage (Japan), Jane (South Korea), Close Knit (Japan), Fantasy of the Girls (South Korea), and Soul Mate (China). More than a nod to the Festival’s kick-off at the end of Pride Month, NYAFF reflects increasing Queer visibility in Asia, void of exploitation or exoticism.
If there are central ideas to be teased out of this year’s lineup, they regard the consequences of misjudgment or prejudgment. It speaks to fragmentation as the ultimate illusion of life, and viscerally demonstrates the present-tense of memory. NYAFF proves that Asian filmmakers may uniquely understand the value of well devised confusion, and are able to maximize the physical and psychic potentials cinema in communion. Hidden most in these challenging and progressive films are the deeper motivations of certain characters, wherein the great mystery is not merely who-done-it, but rather, in a schemata where characters are permitted to be perplexing, the question becomes “why?” Thus NYAFF achieves its most potently psychological selections to date, and not all of them answer the question.
Leste Chen’s Battle of Memories is a high-concept psychological thriller from China told on a human scale with a piece of wild technology as its catalyst. In a vaguely dystopic near-future, a medical procedure has been developed to remove undesired memories, with the caveat of a one-time-only restoration. A clinician clarifies about the procedure, “Many people have misconceptions. It isn’t simply about removal of memories. It’s that in these memories your perspective changes from participant to spectator, thus severing the emotional ties…” offering a gateway into how memory will be explored and exploited as a medium. Novelist Jiang Fen (Huang Bo), indulging an ultimatum in order to acquire a divorce, undergoes the restoration of memories involving his now estranged wife, but instead he wakes with the skewed past of a serial killer. With the ever-present analytical mind of writer, Jiang Fen involves the police on a bid to find the killer before these errant memories become permanent, and before another victim falls. Slipping into a dark hall of mirrors, Battle of Memories makes a dynamic study of memory/dream logic as it advances a riveting narrative with twisting emotional stakes. Furthering the festival’s thesis of misconception and misjudgment, Battle of Memories operates on a fragmentary if not cubistic accretion of details, and at each stage an attempt is made to act upon partial information. Nestled somewhere in the company of Dark City, Inception and Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind as a deft probing of the significance, present-tenseness and cinematic thrust of memory, the more temperate Battle of Memories is as much Neo-noir as it is poetry.
Kindred to Battle of Memories in aspect but not approach, Sabu’s Happiness uses memory as an explicit narrative and identity-building tool wherein a majority of the film takes place in flashbacks. Happiness rises above its premise in unexpected ways. Kanzaki (played by an opaque and dour Masatoshi Nagase [The Hidden Blade]) carts a strange steampunk-esque helmet into a sleepy stagnant small town in Japan. We quickly learn that this helmet, when operated by Kanazaki, awakens long-buried memories of climactic bliss. This flood of feeling brings the somber townspeople back to life, one by one in a kind of theater of recollection. Kanzaki’ motivations are unclear, but Sabu eventually shifts the lens of the film (literally and figuratively) to scratch the tint off of his stonefaced characterization, revealing a painful history stitched from multiple perspectives. Happiness’s vivid and unflinching depiction of a violent and traumatic event in Kanazaki’s past is singularly affecting, and – for better or worse – cannot be unseen. Sabu shows a society that suppresses joy and sorrow alike, and that the consequence is the same…. just as the face of a person contorted in ecstasy or suffering can be identical.
With Rage, Sang-il Lee has bested himself and truly honed the potential of cinema to reflect the limitations of individual perception, and by extension generating palpable and honest drama. His 2011 film Villain is a highpoint of the past decade, and his recent work Rage has eclipsed it in scale. Lee explores three narrative threads with as much depth and fullness as would be afforded one. As the nationwide manhunt for a murderer reaches its anniversary, “three young men without a past appear in the lives of three very different people. In a Chiba fishing village, a young woman (Aoi Miyazaki in the performance of the year) strikes a relationship with a quiet day laborer to her father’s hesitation. A gay Tokyo businessman (Satoshi Tsumabuki) takes in a painfully introverted handsome stranger as a live-in boyfriend. A high school girl recently transplanted from Tokyo to Okinawa becomes fascinated by an emotionally wise wayward island recluse. Lee’s greatest skill is accretion, knowing how much to reveal and when in order to maximize emotional impact and understanding. At 2hrs20min Rage gathers exceptional mass, and when the dams burst, it sends deep vibrations. Rage is highly structural, leaps from thread to thread with sudden intuitions, sometimes sharp, sometimes elegant, sometimes sensory, sometimes emotional, keeping us in as much incremental darkness as each character is unto themselves. This brings us into the milieu of malaise, and expresses cinema as a machinery of empathy.
Another film that writhes in moment of a murderous anniversary, Key Ishikawa’s Traces of Sin slow-burns at 100% opacity. The inertia inches along, steadily, never artificially accelerating. The mass gathered here is composed of suffering steeped in secretive class and psychological warfare. One year after an upper-class couple is found stabbed to death, “reporter Tanaka (Satoshi Tsumabuki) revisits the unsolved case, despite resistance at work and personal troubles. Tanaka is disturbed to uncover details that challenge his original reporting: the butchered well-to-do husband and wife were not the ideal socialites they appeared. One-by-one, his interview subjects remove their masks, painting a disturbing portrait of Japan’s social elite.” Hikari Matsushima’s turn as Tanaka’s much damaged sister accused of infanticide through neglect, adds a degree of upset that is often difficult to experience but stunning to unveil. Procedure is merely footnote in this investigative drama, with full weight given to the dismal kaleidoscope of revelations told through flashback, expertly woven into the flow of contemporary events.
Jane is a magnificent and emotional experiment in temporal and emotional non-linearity, expert in creating degrees of opacity in characterizations and situations. For the viewer, every moment is one of reevaluation, of struggling to piece together fragments and impressions, of wondering when and why we are seeing what we are seeing. This experience is likable to the lives of its dispossessed characters, always shifting from one cobbled-together circumstance to the next, fracturing and reforming into “families”. So-hyun (Coin Locker Girl’s Lee Min-ji) , a troubled high school age girl finds herself abandoned by her friend Jong-ho, “she despondently returns to the motel where they used to stay. There, she meets a transgender woman named Jane (Gu Gyo-hwan), who brings her to a makeshift family of adolescent misfits. After being taken under Jane’s wing, So-hyun looks for Jong-ho.” Lee Min-ji’s evocation of So-hyun is that of someone so out of depth around other people, so bereft of confidence, so consequently perplexing and frustrating to others, so thusly adept at victimhood, so swept up in an inner life, that we both sympathize and want to shake her. Jane is a Transwoman whom So-hyun meets by chance at a hotel in seach of Jong-ho. Jane is also treated as a mix of impressions, what she chooses to reveal and hints of a vast interior landscape of ruins. Again, the structuralism, which deceives as as being seemingly a-structural , is what gives the film its deepest impact.
The Gangster’s Daughter is very much about a father daughter relationship, and the complexities fraught with that parent’s occupation and history. It is a careful study of Shaowu (Ally Chiu) a high school age girl with a willful streak, who relocates to Taipei with her estranged father Keiko after her mother’s unexpected passing. (This element of paternal estrangement crosses vectors with Mad World and Soul On A String, two other selections in the fest). Like a foil to So-hyun in Jane, watching the clockwork turn in Shaowu’s mind, watching her navigate situations with confidence and impulsivity is marvelous, as if to refreshingly witness her coming of age void of the crutch of sexual awakening. Part of me wants to imagine The Gangster’s Dughter as an expansion of the character of Jack (also a boss/enforcer/cleaner played by Jack Kao with discernible scruples) from Hou Hsiao Hsien’s Millenium Mambo (2001). He too is an individual of strong will, a gangster depicted with heart and good intention alongside the necessary intimidation. His own evolution reveals that we never stop coming-of-age, wherein lies the break of expectations that tag along with the Gangster genre.
In the bull-in-a-china-shop gauntlet of Destruction Babies, director Tetsuya Mariko heads down a purely physical no holds barred path which would perhaps pair well with Pou-Soi Cheang’s Shamo (another lay line to Mad World via its star Shawn Lue) . It is what it is: difficult to watch, difficult to look away. We witness Tairo rampage senselessly, near-wordlessly, impulsively and brutally through the streets, picking no holds barred fights with complete strangers in what seems like bid for death. He seems impelled by some unholy perseverance no matter the injury. And if he loses, he finds a way to start it all over again. Meanwhile, as the news of this travels in pieces and whispers, Tairo’s younger brother searches for him to the swift disintegration of his ultimately threadbare friendships. One of the compelling things to watch is the slight skill that Tairo accrues across each encounter. His instincts sharpen, as does his malevolence. His motivations are buried, his thought process is undetectable and primal. As such, I ascribe to the notion that he is without thought (or past thought), other than the pure thrill of confrontation, the expelling of an interior reservoir of perfect apathy, immune to the concepts of defeat or restraint, and as such one might pair Destruction Babies with a film like Alien in its expression of a disturbing purity.
Norihiro Niwatsukino’s Suffering of Ninko and Akihiro Shiota’s Wet Woman In The Wind are cinematic siblings, despite wildly different visual approaches. Both comparatively short films explore self-imposed isolated men attempting to abstain from sexual indulgence for one reason or another, who encounter repeated challenges upon that concerted effort. The handsome Ninko (Masato Tsujioka) is a devout Edo-period Buddhist monk with the unfortunately unmatched power of attraction. Understanding sex a sinful indulgence, Ninko’s ascetic attempts to commune with Zen is made impossible by the unrestrained advances of women. He cannot even beg for alms in town without stirring a frenzy. Riddled with quilt and anxiety, Ninko thrusts himself into further isolation but finds himself the target of a spirit seductress which haunts the woods. In this confrontation, Ninko must reevaluate his seeming curse. Likewise, in Wet Woman in the Wind, a successful playwright (Tatsuka Nagaoka) moves out to the middle of nowhere in forbearance of causal encounters but finds himself the target of a sexually voracious young woman (Yuki Mamiya, who in a strange way reflects the primal unrelenting force of Tairo from Destruction Babies) bent on breaking his resolve with tactics both direct and indirect. While there is certainly humor and degrees of absurdity infused into these narratives, both are suffused with satisfying displays of grit, audacity, invention and psychology.
Zhang Yang’s Tibet-set pastoral epic Soul On A String is calmly urgent, and broods in broad daylight. It too plays expertly with perception without one realizing it. It too dwells on misperception and of acting without fully knowing. A film of such panoramic gold, it stands out firmly among the homogenized bombast of modern mainstream. Taibei (Kuni), a rather severe and opaque wandering Tibetan discovers a sacred jewel in the mouth of a slain deer. Hastened by a monk’s instruction, Taibei endeavors to return the jewel to the holy mountain of Buddha. Several people from Taibei’s past and present quest after him for one reason or another, and through them we begin to understand his checkered history that radiates misdeed. Along his path, Taibei collects a found family (despite his persistence in shirking them off), including a ravishing and open-hearted and internally strong woman named Chung (in a standout performance by Quni Ciren), and a young mute boy. There is a structural invention happening here, something you might feel but not understand, and within it is the true excellence of Soul On A String, sprinkled with a sense of understated magic and mythology, simmering with elemental emotions.