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New York Asian Film Festival 2018: Highlights and Memories

The New York Asian Film Festival (NYAFF) turned 17 this year, a not-insignificant age if you, like me, have been attending the festival with regularity (like, say, the last 15 years). I've seen this film series grow over time, and would like to think my taste and sensitivities have grown with it. NYAFF used to be run by a group of white men—Grady Hendrix, Paul Kazee, Brian Naas, Nat Olson, and Goron Topalovic—who had the necessary chutzpah and dedication to start a pop culture phenomenon. I know these guys: they paid for the festival with their personal credit cards and only really broke even during their first few years. 

Still, they persisted, for which I'm very grateful. Back when the festival began in 2002, NYAFF's programming was a big deal for New York cult film fans like me. NYAFF's organizers regularly highlighted moving dramas and crowd-pleasing comedies that spoke to a spectrum of audiences and experiences from around Asia. 

Like Uncle Boonmee, I vividly remember the festival screenings of my teenage years. Lines of ticket-holders coiled around 1st Street and towards Houston. A smaller slate of films and a different group of programmers, whose preferences and budgets necessarily limited what they showed. But those founding programmers and the current NYAFF selection committee—David Wilentz, Claire Marty, Karen Severns, and Koichi Mori, all led by Deputy Director Stephen Cremin and Executive Director Samuel Jamier—remain some of the most influential among American film festival organizers.

The New York Asian Film Festival of today doesn't feel like the one from my already-calcifying memories. In 2010, they moved on up to the Film Society at Lincoln Center and now split their yearly program—a robust 58 films this year!—between the Walter Reade Theater and Chelsea's School of Visual Arts (SVA) auditorium. The festival's programming has become more diverse, which is something of a necessity when your international slate is co-assembled by various state-sponsored cultural institutions, particularly the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office of New York and the Confucius Institute Headquarters and China Institute. NYAFF's programmers also now give out several awards—more than just their original Audience Award—including a prize for the best action film, an honor that's dedicated to the memory of the late and much missed former NYAFF programmer Daniel Craft.

Still, the most important aspect of NYAFF remains a constant: the festival's consistently hearty and diverse crowds are great proof that American film distributors are wrong to think that only native language speakers want to watch new Asian film. Every NYAFF is like a party, and it's a party that everyone is invited to (and many seem to feel welcomed at). 

With this in mind: I tried to find movies at this year's festival that gave me the same feeling of discovery and excitement that I got back when I first started attending in 2004. Not the easiest task when you can't take off work for a day or five just to watch movies and feel connected with a typically energized NYAFF crowd. NYAFF screenings have a definite vibe, one that many film festival programmers envy and try to copy. You can see it in the way that attendees respond to Hendrix's high-energy, high-content carnival barker spiel. This crowd is EXCITED.

Still, I didn't want readers to think I'm some kind of stuffy ivory tower aesthete (my greatest fear), so I began this year's festival with some Serious Arthouse Cinema: Korean historical drama "1987: When the Day Comes," a great place to start given that the festival organizers previously showed director Joon-hawn Jang's hilariously weird comedic short film "Hair" back in 2006. Jang used to be known among Korean film devotees as the weirdo who helmed the unsettling 2003 sci-fi black comedy "Save the Green Planet." Now he is rightfully known for making "1987: When the Day Comes," a rousing, if doughy dramatization of the events surrounding the murder of several Seoul-based student protesters, particularly the journalistic and police cover-up of their deaths. "1987: When the Day Comes" has Jang's characteristically queasy mix of moods and tones—in this case, sentimentality for a bygone era and punk rock anger for rights-suppressing authority figures—and a lot of charming period detail, particularly its costumes and sets. Still, this is basically a prestige drama that, in any other country, would be as big of a to-do as "The Post" or "Spotlight." It's solid, if a little stiff.

Next came "The Bold, The Corrupt, and The Beautiful," a soapy Taiwanese political drama about three generations of women, two of whom act as power-brokers, facilitating various below-the-table deals between local politicians and businessmen. This movie won three of Taiwan's prestigious Golden Horse Awards (their country's equivalent of the Oscars) for Best Feature Film and Best Actress (Kara Hui, as imperious matriarch Madame Tang) and Best Supporting Actress (Vicky Chen, playing Tang's daughter). Its plot is convoluted and jumps between the memories of its three anti-heroines, particularly the young daughter of Chen's character. There's also a lot of melodramatic twists involving illicit trysts, political double-dealing, and drunken speechifying. So a fun time is guaranteed for everyone who meets the film at its sudsy level. Or maybe just anyone who wishes "All the King's Men" were more like "The Days of Our Lives."

Following that: "Crossroads: One Two Jaga," another ensemble drama, though this time concerned with Filipino immigrants living in Malaysia. This was a must-see for me because I still fondly remember when the festival's organizers screened their first Malaysian film: "Gangster," a mostly kinda bad crime drama that screened back in 2006. The Malaysian film industry is still in its nascency and that shows in the many technical rough edges that hold back "Crossroads: One Two Jaga"—a repetitive, and unpolished social issues drama—back from greatness. Still, the film is ambitious—switching between three or four main sub-plots about police corruption and systemic brutality that's passed on like a birthright from father to son—and smart enough to bring to get under your skin. "Crossroads: One Two Jaga" is a major step up after "Gangster," and is, I'm told, part of a new wave of Malaysian cinema. I'm eager to see what comes next.

The first film that I loved at this year's festival would, however, fit right in at any country's arthouse cinema: "Hit the Night," a funny, dialogue-heavy South Korean sex comedy that feels like a pointed reaction to the prolific (and now unbearably self-pitying) Korean auteur Sang-soo Hong. Like many of Hong's films, "Hit the Night" centers on a series of booze-fueled conversations—about adultery, philosophy, art, and personal freedom—between a filmmaker and their potential romantic conquest. The main difference between Hong's films and "Hit the Night" is that this film is directed in real-life by a woman (Ga-Young Jeong, whose previous credits, including "Bitch on the Beach" and "Cinema With You," also sound like direct rebukes/responses to Hong's films) and is told from a female protagonist's perspective. The conversations that drive "Hit the Night" are consequently a little more involving sine Jeong considers her two main protagonists' inherent loaded assumptions about sex and gender in dialogue exchanges that are sometimes scathingly blunt and sometimes slyly nuanced. Like Hong, Jeong doesn't know if there's a solution to the questions that her stand-in poses. But oftentimes, it's a pleasure just to listen to Jeong's characters circuitously gab about their respective talking points and not-so-secret agendas.

I also really dug the Chinese revenge drama "Wrath of Silence," a macho, but often moving action film that, like "No Country for Old Men" and "In the Valley of Elah," is a pulpy narrative from the Whatever Happened to My Country sub-genre of crime fiction. "Wrath of Silence" follows a mute coal miner (played by martial artist Yang Song) who searches for his missing son by actively pummeling his way through an exploitative, nouveau riche bussinessman's empire. Director Yukun Xin effectively translate Song's characters' mixed feelings—of loss, confusion, and awe—through gorgeous, desolate panoramas of desert hills and valleys. There's a lot of on-the-nose symbolism here too, so anyone who dislikes blunt metaphors should steer clear. Everyone else will probably find something to like about this effectively punishing revenge tragedy. 

Also, be sure to check out the rousing Filipino rap battle drama "Respeto," a corny, but satisfying story about a trio of teenagers who get schooled in the art of street poetry by a depressed used book salesman. "Respeto" is a NYAFF specialty: here's a film that breathes new life into tired coming-of-age tropes about growing up on skid row without real parents (imagine if "8 Mile" and "Finding "Forrester" eloped and had a child after moving to the Philippines). There's a real sense of loss and dynamism in every scene where our heroes attend and compete in local rap battles. And the filmmakers' unique brand of heart-felt, but sensational didacticism—Rap battle fame is fleeting! Teenage prostitution isn't glamorous! PTSD and rape are no joke!—is also pretty irresistible. I bet this movie takes home the festival's Audience Award.

"Respeto" screens right before this year's surprise screening, a can't-miss event for festival attendants both old and new. Last year, the festival's current selection committee programmed the delightfully bonkers 1992 sexploitation spy thriller "Naked Killer." And the year before that, they selected the John Woo-esque 1998 Hong Kong action-drama "A Hero Never Dies," a winningly nutty action bromance featuring the only wheelchair shoot-out you'll ever need. Both films are vintage NYAFF. I'm not really sure if the typical NYAFF audience member attends these secret screenings, nor do I know if my reservations about the festival's steady growth matters much in the long run. I do, however, know that I'll be at this year's surprise screening at the SVA Theater. I hope to see you there.

The 17th New York Asian Film Festival runs from June 29 - July 15 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the SVA Theatre. For more information and showtimes, click here 

Simon Abrams

Simon Abrams is a native New Yorker and freelance film critic whose work has been featured in The New York TimesVanity FairThe Village Voice, and elsewhere.

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