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Thread: NY ASIAN FILM FESTIVAL Aug. 6-22. 6, 2021

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    THREE SISTERS 세 자매 (Lee Seung-won 2020)

    LEE SEUNG-WON: THREE SISTERS 세 자매 (2020)


    KIM SUN-YOUNG, MOON SO-RI, AND JANG YOON-JU IN THREE SISTERS

    Old complaints revisited

    Director Lee Seun-won says in an interview (by ​Joan MacDonald, in Forbes) that he hopes his movies will offer escape and satisfaction, which he said he got when he "ran away from home" and went to the cinema as a youth. How does he think this depiction of three dysfunctional women, the victims of childhood trauma, provides that kind of satisfaction? Perhaps through the terror and pity, catharsis and purgation of Aristotelian tragedy, for Lee Seung-won is primarily a dramatist.

    The title notwithstanding, this material is closer to Bergman than Chekhov. Each sister is also a wife and mother, uneasy in both roles, and living in a different kind of trap. The eldest sister, Hee-sook (Kim Sun-young), is an impoverished divorcee who has become ultra-pathetic, always apologizing, sometimes abjectly. She is a not very successful florist, married to a loser husband, who till now hasn't been able to tell anyone, not even her rebellious punkish daughter Bo-mi (Kim Ga-mi), that she has been diagnosed with cancer.

    Most polished, successful, and well-off is the middle sister, Mi-yeon (Moon So-ri) a born-again style Catholic choirmaster who can’t get her children to follow the faith as well as she’d want them to and terrifies her little daughter for not being able to say grace. Her barely repressed anger comes out when she learns that her university-professor husband, who turns out to have come to find her insufferable, is now cheating on her with one of her choir members. We spend the most time with Mi-yeon, and it is not an easy time.

    The youngest sister, Mi-ok (Jang Yoon-ju), meanwhile, eccentric, colorfully dressed, bleach-haired, wildly outspoken, is an alcoholic playwright, unproductive, troubled with memories she can't access she bugs Mi-yeon about, with little control of her impulses and appetites, yelling even at strangers. She's trying ineffectually to deal with a stepson contemptuous of her and her alcoholic ways, while her well-off greengrocer husband is surprisingly indulgent and still seems to find her attractive. While the two younger sisters talk and meet up at times when Mi-eon feeds Mi-ok, who lives mostly on junk food, a decent meal, neither of them has seen Hee-sook for a while.

    We can tell as the film cuts back and forth among the three women's lives that they are all badly damaged, even the precise, well-ordered Mi-yeon, whose superficially pious, religion-based life reflects its own kind of desperation. But each of the three is too vividly, too independently, imagined: it's hard to make out what they all have in common, given that their personalities, occupations, and economic levels are so different. They don't seem related. But these are three wonderful performances, and each role is an actor's feast that they separately devour, and it's for the acting that we watch the film rather than for the film that doesn't quite hold together.

    The filmmaker, with his theater background, having made the film cinematic with cross-cutting and flashbacks, brings things to a dramatic climax at film's end by intercutting black and white images of the siblings' grimly miserable, impoverished childhood with an alcoholic, physically abusive father who alternately beats them - intercutting some shocking tastes of this miserabilism with the present-time staging of a reunion party at a restaurant private dining room in the sisters' hometown for their father's birthday. Here, their younger brother, whom we have not seen hitherto, behaves in an aberrant manner that brings things to a crazy, shouting, self-damaging finale and makes the lunch party impossible to complete. Everything comes out, and the now elderly dad seems, when pushed, extremely contrite. A coda in which the three sisters gather later for a smiling selfie on the beach seems tacked on and unnecessary, and adds to the feeling that the all-stops-out birthday finale is overbearing and doesn't build sufficiently on what has come before. You have to put it all together in your head; but it's so intense, maybe you can.

    Three Sisters 세 자매, 114 mins., premiered at Jeonju Sept. 18, 2020, opening in Korean theaters Jan. 27, 2021, showing at Osaka Mar. 5, 2021. At the Baeksang Arts Awards Kim Sun-Young won Best Actress; her two costars were also nominated; all three were also nominated at the Chunsa awards. Screened for this review as part of the (Aug. 6-22) 2021 NY Asian Film Festival (internet), where it showed Aug. 18, 2021.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 08-20-2021 at 08:34 AM.

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    A LEG 腿 (Chang Yaosheng 2020)

    CHANG YAOSHENG: A LEG 腿 (2020)


    TONY YANG, GWEI LUN MEI IN A LEG

    TRAILER

    Vicissitudes of a wayward life concentrated in a limb

    Chang Yaosheng has distinguished himself in Taiwan as a novelist, then a screenwriter. In the past few years he has begun directing. He seems to have a particular concern with couples and the afterlife. His previous feature, bluntly entitled in English See You After Life, has been described as a tale in which "The murdered father's ghost comes home to drag the mother to the very end." The new one, a drag in its own way, described as "a dark romantic comedy," is based on the experience of the filmmaker's own parents. It concerns a wife, Qian Yu-Ying (the dryly ironic Gwei Lun Mei of Wild Goose Lake and Black Coal, Thin Ice), who hounds the hospital to give back the amputated leg of her dead husband Zheng Zi-Han (the dangerously handsome Tony Yang/Yáng Yòuníng) so that he can be cremated whole. Chang's own parents hadn't been on good terms for some time. When the leg was restored and the body cremated, Chang said in an interview,* his mother felt disposed "for him to go a long way away and never come back." In this screen version Qian may be vainly seeking to bring back the man she loved. But as their relationship unfolds, perhaps it's to achieve a wholeness that never was. On CineFiles, Alex Brannon breaks down this frantic search into "a quirky take on the denial phase of the grieving process." That too, no doubt.

    Qian's partly Kafkaesque, partly ludicrous pursuit of the missing limb alternates with a story in flashbacks of the couple's life together. Whether that's drawn from the filmmaker's family, we don't know. It's a tale both romantic and tangled and interlaced with Chinese aphorisms. Though Zi-han gets to narrate his life with Qian Yu-Ying, it turns out there's a lot more than a limb to put together in their crumbling marriage, and his wayward, irresponsible life. First they met, through Zi-han's photo studio friend from high school, John (Zhang Shaohuai), on a ballroom dance floor. He was a competitive dancer, and in her he found the perfect partner. By what conceit was that enough excuse to marry? Through the desire to make a lot of money and make Qian happy, Zi-han falls in love with the mystery and danger of high stakes gambling. That indirectly causes him an unwise jump that ends his dancing career and so they open a ballroom school, but his unwisdom continues. Zi-han has a real gift for wrong decisions (and Chang Yaosheng for making them up).

    One of my favorite scenes is the one where the couple come home and find their new house, bought out of foreclosure, occupied by a dozen shirtless, tattooed young gangsters. That'll change a room. (Wrong kind of foreclosure.)

    The cinematography of Chung Mong-hong gives us grace notes, enhanced by the sets that include on-the-run things like the hallways of a hospital and the ballroom of an actual dance contest in progress. This dp knows the value of blurs of red around dancing figures. Chris Doyle might approve.

    A Leg 腿, 115 mins., cowritten with Chung Mong-hong, as was the latter's award-winning, Oscar-shortlisted 2019 A Sun , debuted at Taipei 2020, receiving multiple award nominations; also shown at Tokyo and Hong Kong, all in Nov. 2020. Taiwan theatrical release Dec. 2020. Screened for this review as part of the 2021 NY Asian Film Festival (Aug. 6-22).

    *So Chang recounts in the NYAFF Q&A with David Wilentz.

    Wikipedia entry for A Leg.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 08-20-2021 at 07:13 PM.

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    MY MISSING VALENTINE 消失的情人節 (Chen Yu-Hsun 2020)

    CHEN YU-HSUN: MY MISSING VALENTINE 消失的情人節 (2020)


    PATTY LEE, LIU KUAN-TING IN MY MISSING VALENTINE

    Frozen in a \magic realist Taiwanese rom-com

    My Missing Valentine takes us to a rom-com world partly in the spirit of Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Amélie, where the quotidian is celebrated and transcended through magical alterations of ordinary reality: the two main characters are plum in the center of everyday life, she a post office employee and he a bus driver. The story revolves around 30-year-old wallflower Yang Hsiao-chi, the postal clerk (played by game, girlish TV hostess Patty Lee), and moves between the Taiwan capital of Taipei and the seacoast town of Dongshi, two completely separate worlds, both everyday, and both characters will spend time at the seaside.

    My Missing Valentine may seem slightly odd in the way it manipulates its characters and the way they manipulate each other. Some writers, including a reviewer for The Taipei Times , Han Cheung (though it's more an editorial than a review and he's listed not as film critic but "staff reporter"), have diagnosed its characters' behavior as "stalking" and considered it very inappropriate. This is absurdly literal-minded and misunderstands the wacky rules of romantic comedy; but in any case this is a highly accomplished and much admired piece of work, and was rewarded accordingly with a raft of prizes at the country's Golden Horse Awards, Taiwan's equivalent of the Oscars, including Best Feature and Best Director.

    The wallflower-postal clerk Hsiao-Chhi and the oddball bus driver A Tai (Liu Kuan-ting) are each out of sync with the world, unstuck in time but in opposite ways. She is a second or two ahead of everybody and he is a little behind. A funny quick history has shown her jumping the gun at school races, laughing too soon at movies, and so on. Years ago her father went out to buy tofu pudding and never came back. Despite this, Hsiao-Chhi is cheerful, with a warm smile for her customers, but she's lonely. At home, magically a talk-show host, Gecko man, appears at her window and talks to her at end of day. She never has cause to celebrate Valentine's Day, which is coming up again. But while she's walking across town a buff, handsome young man with a moustache, Liu Wen-sen (Duncan Lai), who teaches a free outdoor dance-aerobics class, runs after her and flirts with her and invites her on a date. Later he seems to disappear, though flashbacks or closeups show that he's a con man, lying to people and dating multiple women.

    When Hsiao-Chi wakes up later it seems Valentine's Day has passed and she's missed an entire day of time.

    A Tai's story is more complicated, intimate, and touching. It would probably be a spoiler to go into his earlier connection to Hsiao-Chi, but they have a special one, it turns out, and she seems to come to appreciate it and care about it, maybe more than about anything else. A Tai from the first has come to the post office every day to mail a letter, which he tries to mail at Hsaio-Chi's desk. His interest in her seems a bit mysterious at first. (Later, it's not.)

    Though Hsiao-Chi is the "protagonist," in a way, A Tai assumes a very central role in the second half of the film, when events draw the pair together. One thing that's very funny and fascinating is the way A Tai seems to drive his bus around, or stop it, just as suits his fancy, manipulating the passengers as he likes. This is a preview of a long passage, the most unique in the film, where all over Taiwan people freeze in motion, all except A Tai. (This is a special effects tour de force of no mean proportions.)

    Hsaio-Chi is on his bus. He can manipulate people like lego dolls, and shape them in different positions in which they stay. Did I mention he always has a camera with him, and likes to take people's pictures, both to memorialize them and to record their wrongdoings? (The cinematography of Chou Yi-Hsien, with its slightly nostalgic faded colors, is often beautiful, with a sense of posed pictures in it too, and many handsome middle-distance shots of urban and seaside landscapes.)

    This snapshot-centric worldview is another charming and peculiar part of the film, especially during the passage when A Tai drives the bus full of frozen-in-place people, including Hsao-Chi, to Dongshi by the sea, and poses time-lapse shots of himself with her in different poses. It's not stalking: it's rom-com magic realism, wistful, sad, and very touching. And finally, after a lot of other stuff, it's looking like the lovers are coming together at the end - just in the very last frame. That's perfection!

    To keep the firm grip on our heartstrings the music over the closing credits is the haunting Bee Gees sixties classic "I Started a Joke" sung by Robin Gibb.

    The most discerning online review may be that of Steven Ng on Obsessive Cinema Disorder. I found it interesting what he says about the comic potential of the Taiwanese accent. The dialogue brought back good memories (perhaps mistaken) for me, of Takeshi Kaneshiro (who did grow up in Taiwan) in Wong Kar-wai's Chungking Express. As Ng notes, this is a movie that would benefit from repeat viewings - and not just for the Taiwanese dialogue. An admiring and thorough review among many niggling and slapdash ones is that of BH for Action.Cut.Review.

    My Missing Valentine 消失的情人節, 119 mins., opened in Taiwan Sept. 18, 2020, and featured at Taipei Nov. 7, received 11 nominations at the 57th Golden Horse Awards, winning Best Feature Film, Best Original Screenplay, Best Visual Effects, Best Film Editing and Best Director. Also at Hong Kong Asian Film Awards, Seattle; Busan; Chicago; Udine; Neuchâtel; and it was screened for this review as part of the 2021 NY Asian Film Festival (Aug. 6-22), where it was shown Aug. 17, 2021.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 08-21-2021 at 03:22 PM.

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    THE FABLE: THE KILLER WHO DOESN'T KILL ザ・ファブル 殺さない殺し屋 (Kan Eguchi 2021)

    KAN EGUCHI: THE FABLE: THE KILLER WHO DOESN'T KILL ザ・ファブル 殺さない殺し屋 (2021)


    JUN'ICHI OKADA IN PUBLICITY FOR THE FABLE: THE KILLER WHO DOESN'T KILL

    JAPANESE TRAILER

    Drawn out of hiding once again

    Kan Eguchi’s The Fable screened as the centerpiece selection of the 2019 New York Asian Film Festival. This is a sequel likewise drawn from the manga series featuring the, well, fabulous yakuza hitman Akira Sato (Jun'ichi Okada), known as "Fable," pronounced in Japanese "favuru," still living undercover as a "normal" person in the city of Osaka. Sato still works part-time at design company Octopus with CEO Takoda (Jirô Satô) and employee Misaki (Mizuki Yamamoto) doing cute drawings. Is this simply more of the same? Yes and no. There is more action this time and a different central plot-line. Once again - and even more - one realizes both how silly and how very accomplished these films are, the tech aspects, editing, acting and yes, even the writing first-rate, the plot and the characters, one hopes anyway, preposterous.

    This episode has a passage of quiet in the first third, but it starts out in the first fifteen minutes with a flashback to the hero's pre-retirement past, in a very nifty, satisfyingly rapid series of killings followed by Fast and Furious-style extended car chase sequence, Japan rivaling Hollywood here (ending with a van careening off the top of a building) that turns out to be important for what follows.

    This time, Yûya Yagira, the actor who became famous at fourteen starring in Koreeda's Nobody Knows, who made a splash playing a histrionic young ex-con, is absent. Instead there is much focus on Hinako (Yurina Hirate), a young woman who becomes disabled in that crash off the buiiding when she falls out of the van, and whom Sato runs into later on. Their uneasy relationship is the most human interest this movie has. Characters are developed. You may have an easier time figuring them out if you saw Fable #1. But though the concept of Sato trying not to be an action hero and then giving in and being one continues, even more this time it's the action itself that counts.

    Yoko (Fumino Kimura), Fable/Sato's partner, is still living with him as his sibling. There are some bad guys looking for Sato, and he sees through their cover soon enough. when a man called Utsubo (Shinichi Tsutsumi) sets up shop as a non-profit worker supposedly concerned with protecting children, Sato suspects something is up. It turns out Utsubo works for rival contact killer Suzuki (Masanobu Ando) and together they're extorting their victims. (The byplay of their use of hidden cameras is a bit complicated.) Suzuki, Utsubo, & Co. are also looking for Fable. One day Suzuki comes in when Yoko is cooking (a feminine pose she's often found in). She subdues and humiliates him; Sato arrives and humiliates him further, sending him away in shame. From then the fight is on and Suzuki and Utsubo want Sato's blood.

    The byplay with Hinako trying to get up and walk and Sato encouraging her to "visualize" and believe in herself shows the hitman's kindly side, and perhaps shame for all the mayhem and suffering his lifestyle has caused. It's also a bit corny and sentimental. Similarly the evilness of Utsubo, like the craziness of Yûya Yagira as Kojima in Fable #1, is an element that reminds us, lest we forget, that this is manga. However the byplay at the Octopus shop, with the histrionics of Jirô Satô as Takoda, has a camaraderie, a knowing sense of continuing with familiar characters, that works very well to develop the film's quiet side, as well as its humorous side, convincingly.

    But the part viewers of Fable: The Killer Who Doesn't Kill are most likely to remember is an extended melee on the outside of a high-rise building covered with metal scaffolding - whose gradual collapse Sato makes ingenious use of, with bruising parkour-style leaps, as he battles dozens of snipers and heavies. A description I wrote about the action sequence of Fable #1 fits perfectly when I say it all "explodes into wild but carefully choreographed chaos on a network of railings and metal and concrete stairways. The sound of the bullets clatters deliciously and so does the click of feet on metal." Similarly delicious, this time, is the sharp thrup of silenced bullets picking off victims in the open sequence: this filmmaker knows action must delight the ear as well as the eye.

    It turns out the main actor of these films, Jun'ichi Okada, was originally known as a singer in a "boy band." How on earth, one wonders, did such an effete existence prepare him for the beating he takes on those scaffoldings?

    Again based on the manga of Katsuhisa Minami, but with a different cowriter, Masahiro Yamaura.

    Fable: The Killer Who Doesn't Kill ザ・ファブル 殺さない殺し屋, 133 mins., debuted at Shanghai Jun. 12, 2021, opening theatrically in Japan Jun. 18, also showing Jul. 2 at Neuchâtel International Fantastic Film Festival. It was screened for this review as part of the Aug. 6-22, 2021 NY Asian Film Festival (shown Aug. 15).
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 08-22-2021 at 04:07 PM.

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    JUNK HEAD (Takahide Hori 2017)

    TAKAHIDE HORI: JUNK HEAD (2017)


    HORI'S LITTLE EXPLORER, IN HIS FIRST REPLACEMENT FORM, IN JUNK HEAD

    In a post-apocalyptic netherworld

    It's said Takahide Hori, presiding genius of Junk Head, personally shot 140,000 sequential photos to make his one-man-band seven-year stop-motion production. This sounds about right, since at the demanding ratio of 24 frames per second Hori followed, it takes that many 24-frame seconds to make up the ninety-seven-minute run-time of this post-apocalyptic voyage to the underworld.

    Junk Head is a prodigious, obsessive labor of love. Though filled with mind-bending chills and thrills and yucks and shocks that may remind you of Eraserhead and Francis Bacon, it's not entirely satisfying as narrative; it's overly episodic and lacks a satisfying conclusion. (This may arise from Hori's original plan having been to make ten short films.) But the animation itself is as artisanally innovative as stop-motion can be. There's a great variety of critters and humanoids to wonder at and that restless camera makes this an exciting actioner. Notably also Hori, who made the film in his interior design studio, includes some deliciously complex miniature spaces full of scaffoldings, tunnels, stairways, overhanging structures. Their grandeur so much rivals Fritz Lang's Metropolis at times it can feel a bit out of sync with the grotesquery and comedy of the figures within them - and the Wall-E- like cuteness of Hori's soulful cyborg central character.

    That character is encased in a protective body when first seen (and many of Hori's figures were baked in an oven). But the minute we first see him, he's being blown up, all except his head. Here's what's happening: It's way into the future. Through genetic manipulation humans have achieved longevity, but in doing so have nearly lost the power to reproduce. They cloned themselves, creating a race, or races more likely, of creatures called Marigans (Mulligans) to serve them lodged in a subterranean world - where they have achieved fertility. 1,200 years ago the Marigans rebelled. Nonetheless many of them look on humans as gods. Now that a virus has killed off 200 million humans, the "gods" have sent down an emissary to take genetic samples from the lower world in hopes of learning how to reproduce freely again.

    The only thing left of this lonely scout is the head in its protective covering (we only briefly glimpse the face inside). The scavengers who've inadvertently nearly destroyed him take the head to "the doctor," who sees what has happened, and after much busy comical computer hocus-pocus, finds that the human has lost all his memory but still clings to life. He's accordingly attached to a new cyborg body with the cute Wall-E look. He's supposed to be under the care of attendants, but he's soon out on his own in a maze of dusty, dingy, complex corridors and warehouses where menacing giant reptiles, spiders and worms, large and small dinosaur-like or Alien-like monsters, constantly threaten to destroy or devour.

    In his new body he's dubbed "Junk Head" because he's assembled from discarded low value parts. But this body is Michelangelo's David compared to the clunky all-metal body and head he gets later, after he's blown up again. Then, he's called "Junkers," and is treated like the lowliest of servants. Memorably he's sent on a wild goose chase to bring back several dozen fresh mushrooms, and is cheated out of them and turned around in his path by an evil con man posing as guide.

    This sci-fi road movie is like a horrific, futuristic Pilgrim's Progress, with lessons to be learned about the futility, deviousness, determination, helplessness, unexpected comedy, and occasional kindness even of this netherworld version of life. The thing is that even though he had animators and craftsmen helping him eventually this is Takahide Hori's universe, and the sense of being in one man's dark post-apocalyptic underworld is quite powerful and more than a little scary. (He voices most of the characters, who speak in subtitled invented language in a kind of whisper-rasp-gargle.) It's hard being in our own nightmares. Being thrust into this hyper-imaginative person's vivid, fully realized one is like David Cronenberg on acid.

    One doesn't enter Hori's world as easily as one does Christopher Nolan's, say, or Eric Rohmer's. One is too constantly aware of the foreign, external made-ness. Inevitably one may start thinking about what we've heard, about the seven years the filmmaker spent on the handcrafted work; of the earlier 30-minute version that was shown in Japan to an excited audience, which gathered supporters, though crowd-sourcing was inadequate at first. We remember stories about how Hori didn't even know he was making stop motion, and had to Google it; struggling for four years to complete the 30-minute "Junk Head 1" in 2013, when he put it on YouTube and the Oscar-winning director Benicio del Toro commented: "A one-man band work of deranged brilliance! Monumental will and imagination at work." (See the Japan-Forward article for details of the struggle.)

    I was put off by it at first and found Junk Head a bit of a slog, despite its reasonable length. It was in perusing the wealth of stills on the internet that I began to realize what a richness was here. On re-watching, I understood how compelling the film is, what a forward thrust it has. Despite its episodic and repetitive nature, Junk Head creates a world and guides you through it forcefully. For animation fans this is a must-see.

    Now in 2021 the film, which won the best animated feature award in its 2017 debut at Fantasia, has finally come out in a theatrical version in Japan and has also been fitted with an alternate set of first-rate English subtitles to replace the original Japanese ones. One hopes it will find its way to theatrical showings in the US and the rest of the world. One also hopes this gifted filmmaker, with that "monumental will and imagination," will continue to make more films (probably with more outside help from here on). Hori reportedly has a second film ready for release. We look forward to it.

    Junk Head, debuted Jul. 23, 2017 at Montreal (Fantasia Film Festival), winning Best Animated Feature Special Mention (Satoshi Kon Award), showing at nearly a dozen other international festivals in 2017 and 2018, including the Best Director of a New Wave Feature Award at Fantastic Fest (Austin, TX). Also included in the 2021 NY Asian Film Festival, where it was co-winner of the Audience Award, and as part of which it was screened for this review. It was recently released in theaters in Japan.

    Interview with animator Atsuko Miyake by Genko Jason on Genkinahito.


    THREE MARIGANS IN JUNK MAN


    A VAST SPACE IN MINIATURE BUILT AS A SET FOR JUNK HEAD


    TAKAHIDE HORI WITH SET AND FIGURES FOR JUNK HEAD
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 08-23-2021 at 02:59 PM.

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    THE OLD TOWN GIRLS 兔子暴力 (Shen Yu 2020)

    SHEN YU: THE OLD TOWN GIRLS 兔子暴力 (2020)


    WAN QIAN AND LI GENGXI IN THE OLD TOWN GIRLS

    Bad mother, weak daughter

    What Shen Yu has chosen to deal with in her debut feature is very bad parenting, as well as, if one could call it that, very unwise "childing," which she presents in something of a "neo-noir" context in the setting of a lower tier city in contemporary China. This concept of "noir" seems a bit of a stretch; but if all you need is some cops and some losers, some criminal behavior and an overriding melancholy, you've got it. The dry, ironic feeling of traditional noir is missing. What we have left here is sadness. That seems to fit with the vast but cheerless milieu of this nameless city, surrounded by water and factories and not much hope.

    The two central figures are an irresponsible young mother, Qu Ting (Wan Qian, of The Wild Goose Lake, a more fully noirish film) and her unwise daughter, Shui Qing (Li Gengxi). The girl is forced to live in the unfriendly environment of her father and stepmother, equally mean and uncaring. It turns out her mother left when she was one year old, so she says when she appears. Poor Shui Qing falls upon her with almost unwelcome delight, blind to the fact that Qu Ting is childish and irresponsible - and being a kind of dancer, a theater person, herself inadequate and needy, probably hopes to do a star turn and be admired, which works. Then when Qu Ting is around for a while some heavies appear, employed by loan sharks, very bad company indeed (the "noir" personalities). Qu Ting has borrowed a lot of money from very bad people and needs to pay up pronto. You know the drill.

    This happens, but the film opens in medias res with a very troubled event that happens later in time involving Qu Ting's bright yellow car (she surrounds herself with yellow things, for various symbolic reasons, no doubt), Sui Qing's father, and a classmate's father, and some cops outside a station. There is talk of a kidnapping, and then a mistake, and then something much worse. This puts the viewer on her guard and creates a sense of excitement. The trouble is it's hard to follow up when you start out a film so fast, and director Yu has somewhat deadened her climax. Nonetheless this opening is sophisticated and original; and the titles, with the sweeping music and panoramic shots of bridge and water and large, nondescript Chinese city, really grab you and make you expect a lot, perhaps a bit more than you actually get.

    The two actresses are the thing, anyway, and their interactions don't disappoint. As Qu Ting, Wan Qian is memorable, mercurial, totally unreliable, glamorous and disreputable in equal measure. As Shui Qing, Li Gengxi is good too, vulnerable, desperate, above all desperately loyal to her newly discovered mother, to whom she attaches herself and for whom she's instantly ready to risk all, and does. It's acknowledged in the dialogue when Qu Ting tells Shui Qing, knowing she's brought her only trouble, that if she hadn't come along she would be a normal schoolgirl. Now, she is not.

    There is infinite pathos in Shui Qing's attempt to hold on to her two girlfriends, the quiet Ma Yueyue (Zhu Zyng) and Jan Xi (Yu Chai), who poses as a model and has rich parents. A major sequence comes when Shui Qing begs Jan Xi, the confident rich girl (who inexplicably wears short shorts to school when nearly everyone else is in uniform) to come to her birthday the next day. Jan Xi says she will, only if Shui Qing reads a statement over the school pubic address system that she's written about her mistakes with and betrayal by her mother - and Shui Qing, as unwisely loyal to her girlfriend as she is to her mother, does read it.

    Before this, three is a sequence where Qu Ting comes to the high school with the teacher's cooperation and teaches a wide-ranging class in dancing, and into this for a partner draws the class hottie, Bai Haowan, leading to much suspicion and jealousy, since all the girls long for Bai Haowan. This is a throwaway, but serves two purposes. It's another of this film's many demonstrations of how mean people can be, and it displays how impressive Qu Ting can be, but only fleetingly, since it's only a one-time performance.

    The three coauthors of the script, Shen Yu, producer Fang Li, and Qiu Yujie, contribute many other details and developments of characters to the action. The multiple hands may account for a structure that, from the attention-grabbing opening, never quite fully coheres. Yet there is a freshness here, and a skillful blend of art film and entertainment.

    The sweeping music has been mentioned, though there's always a danger that when one notices a score, it has gone wrong. Likewise with the cinematography of dp Wang Shiqing, which makes people look blurry sometimes, and one wondered why.

    The Old Town Girls 兔子暴力, 104 mins., debuted at Tokyo Nov. 1, 2020, also showing at Moscow Apr. 26, 2021. It was screened for this review as part of the 2021 NY Asian Film Festival (Aug. 6-22,) shown (internet) Aug. 13. Release in China Aug. 14.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 08-24-2021 at 02:01 PM.

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    Roundup of the asian film festival, 2021

    Comments: NYFF #20.


    OUDAI KOJIMA (JOINT)

    I found most of the films I chose to screen in this year's NYAFF interesting, as I have before. This is a fabulous film festival for its variety and quality.

    I admired the Japanese film A BALANCE (Jujiro Harumoto) for its seriousness in treating of a woman documentary filmmaker working on the fallout from a teacher's seduction of a student (or vice versa), who then finds a similar problem arising in her own family. It's a very intelligent and subtle film and reminded me of Asghar Farhadi and Michael Haneke.

    Obviously Takahide Hori's JUNK HEAD, which I've just reviewed, a virtually one-person dystopic stop motion animation, is a once-in-a-lifetime film; I'm glad the NY festival audience came out for it with an Audience Award. You don't get something like that in every NYAFF!

    In Japanese cinema there's always a manga influence. Manga-sourced films this time were THE FABLE: THE KILLER WHO DOESN'T KILL (Kan Eguchi); SENSEI, WOUILD YOU SIT BESIDE ME? (Takahiro Horie); and ZOKKI (by three directors) - which shows manga can be many different things (a very slickly made sequel movie of a yakuza hitman story, a tale about a cute hotshot manga-writing couple with fidelity issues; intermingled short stories about weird outsiders. This one felt like Kaurismaaki, or Roy Andersson.

    MY MISSING VALENTINE (Chen Yu-Hsun) almost could be manga, but it's Taiwanese. High concept rom-com storytelling of a high order. At the country's awards it won all the prizes, yet some writers found it odd or improper, so there were complications or flights of fancy some audience members don't get. Very winning - and thought-provoking.

    JOINT, by 27-year-old Oudai Kojima, who lived from age 3 to age 13 in NYC (which may count for something) but attended high school and college in Japan, approaches the Japanese gangster movie with a very fresh eye, a fresh visual look, new up-to-date-information, including an angle on the new yakuza "business" focus. Very interesting and promising. If you like genre as much as I do of course you want to see someone ring changes on it. As the Lincoln Center blurb says (they are presenting the film), Kojima "creates a compelling portrait of today’s underworld, with multi-ethnic characters who are scrambling to bridge physical, generational, and moral divides." It's quite possible the fresh outlook of his time in New York contributes to his awareness of this.

    BOOK OF THE FISH (Lee Joon-ik) was refreshing, black and white, Korean historical film, yet somehow never heavy, it looks at an intellectual high in government banished in 1800 to an island for involvement in Christianity, seen by the king as subversive. This leads to meeting a fisherman with intellectual ambitions and a collaboration on an unprecedented book about fish. Based on true events. Not just a palate cleanser but sometimes we do need that, and not just at a festival.

    Others were good to know about or I'm glad they were made, like A SONG FOR YOU (Dukar Tserang), about a soulful, cool Tibetan who kind of wants to become a rock star but thinks he's a bigger hotshot than he is. Damtin Tserang is an appealing, sexy lead, but also convincing as a bit of a hick. My dream that this film would evoke early Jia Zhang-ke was not fulfilled, but Jia did co-produce.

    Wish I had gotten to more of the exotic ones.

    I forgot to list NINJA GIRL (Yu Irie), which is a free story about local town politics, liberally laced with fantasy. I think it's admirable, but perhaps not so memorable.


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    ANIMA 莫爾道嘎 (Cao Jinling 2020)

    CAO JINLING: ANIMA 莫爾道嘎(2020)

    \
    QI XI IN ANIMA

    Inner Mongolian drama set in an eighties lumber camp

    Set in Inner Mongolia in the 1980s, when China launched economic development programs that resulted in widespread clear-cutting of old growth forest, this is a passionate but overbearing and unduly gloomy debut that combines fraught love conflict with a message about threatened ethnic minorities and planetary degradation. Anima focuses on two Evenki tribe brothers and their rivalry over a pretty and very resourceful "wild woman" widow; but it is really about the death of their traditional way of life, and of our planet. I respect the central notion that we are all part of one soul (the "anima" of the title), but the film would work better if it let the larger environmental topic take care of itself. Unfolding in mostly frigid, austere locales, with cinematography by Hou Hsaio Hsien regular Mark Lee Ping-bing, writer-director Cao Jinling’s film plunges us into the rough world of a community that has been drawn into the destruction of its own native environment to survive.

    It all starts with breathless whispered narration à la Terrence Malick by the protagonist, Linzi, extolling the seasons, followed by the story of how On a cold winter day in the town of Muirdauga (Mo Er Dao Ga),* as a small boy he fell into a bear den during a hunting trip and his older brother TuTu is forced to kill the bear, which is considered taboo and labels him an outcast in the Evenki tribe. Their mother dies in this exploit. As adults the brothers, who have been exiled with their father to a small twon on the edige of the forest, work in a lumber camp run by Boss Yan, who heads the biggest of the Han lumber triads that are moving into tribal territory. At the camp, Linzi is forever pouty and unwilling while Tutu is crudely enthusiastic about anything to make a buck.

    One day comes the big plot twist: Linzi (Eric Wang) is strolling in an old growth forest that is his secret when he is caught in a wolf trap set by Chun (Qi Xi), the widow who will become his wife. She winds up coming to the logging camp and being the replacement cook for a while, leading to Tutu's becoming enamored of her, but Linzi is the one who fell into her trap, so she chooses him.

    The action is sometimes charming and funny, the setting authentic, but unlike other reviewers, among whom Wally Adams of Eastern Kicks seemed the most helpful (I am indebted to him for my understanding of the background of the story), why do I find the film deeply unsatisfying? Simply because it seems so manipulative from the very beginning, with its contrasting brothers, its pointed early trauma, and all the rest, and then a finale in which nature has its way. Director Cao Jinling gets our attention; I'll grant him that. And his recreation of a macho Chinese lumber camp is interesting. But the writing is heavy-handed.

    Adams calls Anima "probably China's finest 'minority' film at least since 2015’s Paths of the Soul" and says that "what that film did for Tibetan land, culture and beliefs, Anima does for a people and place considerably less explored in the Western consciousness." So be it, but I was reminded for some reason of Zacharias Kunuk's 2001 extraordinary film of an ancient Inuit legend, Atanarjuat. That may be unfair. But there's a "minority film."

    Anima 莫爾道嘎(Mordaoga), 120 mins., in China Evenki and Mandarin, debuted at Cairo, where Qi Xi was nominated for the best actress award, and showed at many other international festivals including Hong Kong, Moscow, Singapore, Shanghai, Udine, Fribourg, and the NYAFF.

    *Adams explains "Mo Er Dao Ga" (the film's original title) and the now protected Moerdaoga national forest to which it now refers, and the trajectory of Inner Mongolia in his review.

    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 10-13-2021 at 01:20 AM.

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