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New York Asian Film Festival 2023 Highlights

In its best years, the New York Asian Film Festival (NYAFF) reminds attendees why it ranks high among the city’s best-programmed film surveys. NYAFF has graced a few venues since 2002, including a pre-air-conditioning Anthology Film Archives and a pre-alcohol IFC Center, but remains one of the city’s most enjoyable festivals to attend if only for its audience’s high energy and characteristic open-ness. You can tell you’re in good company when you recognize the same people who were at the perverted Japanese superhero comedy at screenings of a three-hanky Korean romance or later at a punishing Thai martial arts weepy.

The most satisfying thing about previewing this year’s typically eclectic slate of movies was knowing that a NYAFF crowd-pleaser could be anything from the Korean rom-com “Killing Romance” to the newly restored 1982 Hong Kong New Wave teen drama “Nomad.” It’s easy to imagine audiences for both movies will leave eager to seek out more where those came from. NYAFF’s programmers have built and now maintain an audience whose voracious appetite has been developed and stoked by the festival’s instantly recognizable avant pop sensibilities. This summer’s lineup is one of the festival’s strongest in years.

“Killing Romance” opens the festival this upcoming Friday, one of a few screenings that have almost immediately sold out. Other standby-only titles include the queer-themed Taiwanese ghost/cop comedy “Marry My Dead Body” and the feel-good Korean sports drama “Dream.” “Killing Romance” will likely become available to stream on Netflix here in the US later this year, but if you get the chance to see it with a crowd, you should. “Killing Romance” is the last of Warner Bros. Korea’s productions and features the sort of eccentric, fizzy humor that somehow doesn’t let up, partly thanks to a deeply committed performance from “Parasite” star Lee Sun-Kyun.

Lee plays Jonathan, a boorish, controlling “chaebol”-style nouveau riche captain of industry who seduces newly-retired starlet Hwang Yeo-Rae (“Extreme Job” star Lee Ha-Nee), and then actively sabotages her when she tries to mount a comeback. NYAFF audiences might expect the quirky romance that follows: Hwang plots to kill her husband with assistance/inspiration from her adoring next-door neighbor Kim Beom-Woo (Gong Myoung), who happens to be the president of Hwang’s fan club.

Festival regulars may also expect Lee’s almost literally mustache-twirling turn and the movie’s cheery and surreal humor. That’s because “Killing Romance” is a NYAFF specialty, a relentless and ultimately irresistible comedy that, when seen with an audience, might lead you to second-guess how much you enjoyed yourself because of how hard everyone else was laughing. I saw it alone, hunched over a desktop computer, and laughed throughout.

The new restoration of “Nomad” will probably also charm festival-goers, especially given its well-synthesized combination of sunny teen melodrama and arthouse sex comedy. “Nomad” was the third feature helmed by Patrick Tam, whose devastating 2006 domestic drama “After This Our Exile” screened at NYAFF one year later. Tam is not a prolific filmmaker, having only completed seven other features since 1980. But his first three features, including the romantic 1980 wuxia action drama “The Sword” and the high-strung 1981 housing crisis slasher “Love Massacre,” remain exemplary works of the Hong Kong New Wave. NYAFF’s programmers deserve credit for their commitment to championing Tam’s features, which haven’t always been easy to see, here or abroad.

Nomad

The director’s cut of “Nomad” feels like an unheralded event, possibly because this version of Tam’s movie has already been screened on the West Coast. “Nomad” starts as a breezy coming-of-age romance-drama, all about a group of young lovers, including wide-eyed Cecilia Yip and baby-faced Leslie Cheung, who court each other and bicker among themselves. The movie ends as a prophetic lament, forecasting not only an abrupt end to innocence but a time when global politics and the world beyond Hong Kong would suddenly intrude and make it impossible for the island’s lovers to ever be so haplessly naïve.

Everybody steps on each other’s toes here, like twitchy family members who have lived on top of each other for too long. There’s also a sex scene on a double-decker bus that now looks like a key influence on the woozy pulp romances of Wong Kar-wai. (Tam was Wong’s mentor in real life) Then the bubble bursts for reasons that barely seem to matter or make sense. “Nomad” is so arresting that you might frantically search the auditorium when it eventually goes clear off the rails and wonder: Did anyone else see that?

A few exceptional genre movies will probably also leave NYAFF attendees feeling galvanized, albeit for different reasons. Instead of the thrill of discovery, you get well-crafted variations on familiar themes from both the dizzying Japanese thriller “#Manhole” and the low-simmering Hong Kong ghost drama “Back Home.” Both movies focus on atmosphere over plot and often flashback to events that were either forgotten or suppressed.

Back Home

In “Back Home,” Cantopop star Anson Kong investigates a haunting family history when he returns to Hong Kong after a long absence to look after his comatose mother.  And in “#Manhole,” TV heart-throb Yuto Nakajima burns through a smartphone full of apps after he drunkenly falls into an open manhole and can’t pull himself back out. Both “#Manhole” and “Back Home” are atmospheric and build momentum so well that it almost doesn’t matter where they end up. They’ll still put you through the wringer and leave you feeling giddy, another NYAFF specialty.

Two new ripped-from-the-headlines thrillers also stand out, especially because they both present their desperate skid row scavengers as extensions of their paranoiac environments. In the morbidly funny Hong Kong thriller “Mad Fate,” a desperate-to-please astrologer (Ka-Tung Lam) tries to save a sociopathic and deeply superstitious delivery boy (Lokman Yeung) from a certain and maybe even divinely ordained death. And in the grimy Singaporean chase movie “Geylang,” a hapless sex worker (Patricia Lin) flees from her pimp (Mark Lee) and also a back-alley surgeon (Shane Mardjuki) who tries to harvest her organs, neither of whom is ultimately as threatening as the social worker lawyer (Sheila Sim) who’s also chasing after Lin’s character.

Mad Fate

Both “Mad Fate” and “Geylang” feel like long, sweat-drenched sprints through the crooked back alleys of their respective island settings. They’re the kind of brisk, tabloid-friendly neo-noirs that seem universal, given their lightly worn and finely detailed procedural narratives. Both movies are also scuzzy enough to leave you hoping for a mid-day shower, so be ready for some shell shock and/or emotional disorientation when the lights come up.

In addition to a few movies I’ve yet to see (especially “Dream,” by the director of “Extreme Job”), I’d be most excited to see the infectious Taiwanese gangster/romantic-comedy hybrid “Miss Shampoo” with an audience. “Miss Shampoo” hilariously underscores the angsty chaos resulting from cross-breeding hard-boiled yakuza/triad crime dramas with hormonal teen romantic dramas, two great tastes that don’t necessarily go great together. Taiwanese pop star Vivian Sung plays a naïve hairdresser who becomes a stylist for a bunch of young mobsters after she witnesses a crime and is taken under the wing of Emerson Tsai’s gold-hearted gang leader. Neither character has realistic expectations, and both hail from pushy, inescapable families.

Without calling too much attention to its allusive poptimist bonafides, “Miss Shampoo” glides from one unlikely, bubble-bursting confrontation to the next. It’s the sort of perpetually escalating comedy whose unpredictable plot and frequent mood swings reflect a fresh and disarming style. Of course, “Miss Shampoo” is not the first movie that NYAFF’s programmers have screened by multihyphenate writer/director Giddens Ko. Granted, you, like me, might have missed the horror-comedy “Mon Mon Mon Monsters,” which screened at NYAFF in 2017, or the romantic drama “You Are the Apple of My Eye” from 2012. But like the best festival highlights, “Miss Shampoo” left me wondering what else I’d missed. I can’t wait to go back and find out.

Get tickets 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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