The New York Asian Film Festival (NYAFF) is never the same thing twice. It’s a little different every year, and in this rare setting, “different” is a very good thing: I can’t think of any other film festival that has earned so much good will by encouraging viewers’ to cultivate and/or renew their passion for exploring new filmmakers, styles, and cultures. I am, admittedly, a little biased since I basically grew up at NYAFF, having been a festival volunteer from 2004-2006 (and subsequently attended and/or covered the festival almost every year since then). NYAFF’s varied selection, enthusiastic audience, and generous programmers make me feel at home. I am always happy to see the festival’s audience grow with their burgeoning slate of films and events (over 40 films this year!).
This year, the festival’s organizers, led by executive director Samuel Jamier and head programmers Claire Marty and David Wilentz, have put together a characteristically strong program of screenings and events, including an essential trio of films choreographed and directed by Hong Kong martial arts coordinator Woo-Ping Yuen (“The Matrix”; “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”), as well as a couple of recent theatrically released titles, like the Hong Kong romantic-comedy “Missbehaviour” and the Vietnamese martial arts flick “Furie,” the latter of which is easily one of the year’s best action movies. This year’s secret screening (an annual highlight) also features live musical accompaniment from Shaolin Jazz.
“Samurai Marathon,” this year’s Opening Night film, is also a great way to start the festival, especially if you attend the “Night Market” food bazaar (wherein attendees can sample food from across Asia; try the takoyaki, it’s great; and if you don’t like it, give me yours, I need it). Directed by Bernard Rose (“Immortal Beloved,” “Candyman”) and scored by Philip Glass, “Samurai Marathon” follows a group of, uh, samurai as they run to and from Annaka Castle, first to win a 36-mile foot race and then to warn their feudal master Itakura of an impending attack from the Shogun (long story short: the Shogun, now paranoid after making first contact with American ambassadors, has received bad intel and now assumes that he has to quell a rebellion at Annaka).
“Samurai Marathon” sometimes feels like an apolitical civics lesson, especially given how disinterested the filmmakers are in establishing more than a basic understanding of life in a newly “open” Japan (a prefatory inter-title situates the film 260 years after “Japan cut itself off from the world”). But Rose’s apparent love for his characters—especially the way that their bodies move in their clothes and the way that the light reflects on their faces—and Glass’s commanding minimalist score make “Samurai Marathon” a fitting tribute to the unifying spirit of the Annaka marathon, an annual tradition that continues to this day.
I’m also fond of “Signal Rock,” a Filipino slice-of-life drama that follows the benign, island-wide conspiracy to help family man Intoy (Christian Rables) to secure custody of his niece Sophia for his estranged sister Vicky (who is threatened by her abusive, well-connected boyfriend). “Signal Rock” romanticizes island life all out of proportion in the same way that Bruce Springsteen songs both celebrate and lament smalltown/blue-collar America. Everybody knows everybody’s business in “Signal Rock,” because you can’t avoid seeing your neighbors when you’re waiting to catch a cell phone signal at the top of the title location, or when you’re attending Sunday mass (or an evening dance) in the same exact spot. Some characters fantasize about leaving home, but everybody also knows how hard that fantasy can be to realize, especially for women who are either expected to marry a wealthy foreigner or work in a bar (so that they can meet a wealthy foreigner). Director Chito Roño and screenwriter Rody Vera do a fantastic job of making Intoy’s world seem real enough, especially its warm, melancholic atmosphere. I believe that the people of “Signal Rock” exist and really enjoyed getting to know them and their respective hang-ups and daydreams.
I was also really taken with “Wushu Orphan,” a wryly funny Chinese coming-of-age comedy that follows neophyte Chinese language teacher Youfung Lu (Noah Jin) as he tries to understand awkward teen Cuishan Zhang (Yunxiao Hou), the only student at Zhige Wushu Academy who doesn’t like practicing wushu martial arts. “Wushu Orphan” has the precision and confidence of a Wes Anderson comedy, but none of Anderson’s idiosyncratic fussiness. Better still: the plot is vividly detailed, but light in the same way as a really good beach read. The movie’s cast members also generally bring a lived-in reality to their roles that transcends writer/director Huang Huang’s precise dialogue.
I’m amazed that “Wushu Orphan” is Huang’s debut feature; he’s got such a firm grasp on coming-of-age conventions, and some striking ideas about the performative militarism that has come to define China’s exported self-image (basically: it’s a pseudo-traditional reaction to Westernized globalism!). If you only have time for one film at this year’s NYAFF, make it “Wushu Orphan.”
That said: I hope NYC horror buffs check out “Walk With Me,” an unclean Malaysian psychodrama that often feels like the damp, depressed, distant cousin of scuzzy Hong Kong Category III true-crime/exploitation films like “The Untold Story” or “Run and Kill.” “Walk With Me” isn’t as icky as those earlier films, but it is set in the same kind of oppressively rundown world of sweatshops and slum apartments (Also: at one point, a little girl tries to microwave a puppy, though the dog leaves the mini-oven unharmed). We follow painfully shy wallflower Sam (Michelle Wai) as everybody—her indifferent mother (Yuen Yee Ng), her abusive father (Hong Kong character actor/comedian Richard Ng), and her cruel co-workers—either ignores or exploits her.
Much of “Walk with Me” is about Sam’s moldering environment and the way it reflects her seemingly hopeless lot in life. She thinks she’s haunted by a brother that she barely knew, but nobody else sees what she sees, not even her long-lost (and very peppy) high school buddy (Alex Lam), who seemingly materializes out of nowhere. Sam’s story builds to a doozey of a rug-pull finale, one whose implications straddle a very fine line between confusing and insensitive. But even the movie’s twisty climax makes sense given that rest of the movie plays out like a dramatized urban legend about a woman on the verge of a psychotic breakdown. I’m not sure the rest of this movie works, but it’s worth seeing and arguing about.
Finally: seek out the slow, psychedelic Chinese spiritual drama “Jinpa,” a Buddhist allegory about a long-haul trucker who runs into a revenge-seeking monk on his lonely drive through Kekexili, the famously inhospitable Tibetan flatlands that are sometime freezing and sometimes boiling hot, often within a short stretch of time (and space). “Jinpa” is very much an acquired taste, a shaggy dog zen koan of a movie that strings you along for a solid 90 minutes until you arrive at its discomfiting, ambiguous conclusion. But if you can get on the same wavelength as “Jinpa,” you might enjoy drifting along with the title character as he sings along to a cassette tape of “O Sole Mio,” futzes with a half-empty packet of cigarettes, and quietly flirts with the barmaid at a nearby tavern. I love movies like “Jinpa” because they take me to unexpected places and, for a couple of hours, mess with my view of the world. It’s not for everyone, but most great NYAFF titles aren’t: they reward adventurous moviegoers and leave you wanting more. Welcome back, NYAFF; thanks for having me.