The Best Asian Genre Movies, Period
A member of the Online Film Critics Society, Peter writes for Twitch, the Financial Times, and Rue Morgue. A contributing editor at Metro magazine, and a columnist on blockbuster movies for Screen Education, he also blogs on pop culture at School Library Journal: http://blogs.slj.com/connect-the-pop/. Get too-frequent updates about comics, books, movies, and TV via Twitter: @Peter_GutierrezView all articles by Peter Gutiérrez
Even if you can’t manage to claw your way to the Big Apple over the next couple of weeks for NYAFF, you’ll want to familiarize yourself with its offerings and queue them mentally. With directors such as Miike and To, and films such as the Death Note sequel L: Change the World and the live-action Dororo, we’re talking state-of-the-art genre movies…
Need to lose the aftertaste deposited by this summer’s over-hyped letdowns from Hollywood? Well, here are some movies designed not just to cleanse your palette, but perhaps to scour it—they show me, in fact, how much I’ve been “settling” recently. In fact, the New York Asian Film Festival features the kind of programming that you and your smartest, hippest friends might come up with if given free rein—that is, if you spent all year staying on top of the wildest releases from the other side of the planet. One of the fest’s promo pieces this year compared the process to overstuffing a piñata with movie treats and then allowing it to explode. Not only is that a great image, but based on the titles I’ve been fortunate enough to preview, it’s also entirely accurate in terms of the giddy sense of wonderment that these movies induce. So what say we take a look at some of these goodies that will soon be spilling out into our greedy little hands…?
X-CROSS is a kind of like a genre film festival all by itself, as if a brain-addled—but talented—fanboy commandeered the tour bus and ran it straight down the center of Popcornville, not stopping at any stop signs and ignoring all the clearly-marked boundaries. The movie is a sinuous, crackling combo of mystery, slasher film, quasi-Lovecraftian ode to those who worship the old gods, and even a martial arts smackdown, complete with a chainsaw and a huge pair of scissors (!). And did I mention that this astonishing grab bag of thrills is delivered with alternating POV characters (hence the title), so that the same events come to be staged from multiple perspectives? Sure, we’ve all seen that device before, but rarely executed this well: the plotting is loads of fun, the editing snaps like a whip, and director Kenta Fukasaku manages to keep a straight face for as long as he possibly can.
Easily the funniest mock-doc you’ll see this year or next, DAINIPPONJIN celebrates just about the only horror staple that doesn’t make it into X-CROSS, the Giant Monster. The hilariously deadpan Hitoshi Matsumoto plays Big Man Japan, a brutally unexceptional Joe when normal sized. Yet every once in a while the government pumps him up with electricity to battle weird behemoths that have the audacity to wander into the city (in response, Matsumoto sometimes simply implores them to return to the suburbs—uh-oh, I’m starting to laugh again just thinking about this). His most passionate conflicts, however, are apparently with his agent, who maximizes revenue by selling ad space on his billboard-sized torso. That’s not to say that the monsters themselves don't provide eye-popping fun—from the silly, to the touching, to the bizarrely sexualized, these creatures are pretty unforgettable. Then, just when you think this movie can’t get much better, the tears-streaming-down-your-face finale is just about the most joyfully absurd thing I can remember seeing—its tone recalls TEAM AMERICA: WORLD POLICE if it were somehow even zanier and less inhibited. By the way, DAINIPPONJIN is screening in conjunction with Japan Society’s Japan Cuts series, which will also be featuring Quentin Tarantino in Takashi’s Miike’s much-anticipated SUKIYAKI WESTERN DJANGO. (More on Japan Cuts' exciting program shortly.)
THE BUTCHER uses first-person camerawork and a stripped-to-the-bone torture-and-kill narrative to create one of the most disturbing pieces of unrelieved horror I’ve had the pleasure of enduring. Think Pasolini’s SALO, not in terms of style, but in the overall tone of the cinematic experience: sheer depravity and raw cruelty but with a highly intelligent, even moral, sensibility lurking behind all the shocks. Harrowing and authentic-feeling right out of the gate, THE BUTCHER’s digitally-shot origins and its occasionally careless English subtitles only serve to heighten the grueling realism. What’s harder to see, perhaps, is how well written it is. I don’t mean witty dialogue or an intricate plot, but rather the care with which the writing makes one realize that, curiously, the most horrible thing is not how the tormentors abuse their victims physically, but verbally. There’s a psychological power at work here—call it crude if you want, but the emotions themselves are primal—and it’s backed by a deceptively effective sense of pacing so that the overall feel is one of an improvised juggernaut.
Like THE BUTCHER, OUR PUPPY, OUR FAMILY hails from Korea, and it is simply one of the most enjoyable horror shorts I’ve seen in a long time from any country. The title, with its sweet and sinister flavor, perfectly captures the mood of this thirty-minute wonder. A multigenerational family has an opportunity to move (and hence “move up” socially) and the question arises as to what do with their beloved pet since their new building has a no-dogs policy. Simple set up, right? But directors Park Soo-Young and Park Jae-Young manage to keep viewers pleasantly off-balance every step of the way: whenever you think you know where things are going, they jerk your leash. And perhaps the biggest surprise of all is how, in the end, OUR PUPPY, OUR FAMILY successfully morphs into a touching message movie. So what does that say about me that I need a coating of supernatural weirdness and savage violence to swallow that kind of pill? Screening as part of the second program of MSFF Short Films on June 28 (which will be introduced by Park Jae-Young), OUR PUPPY, OUR FAMILY is the pic that NYAFF simply calls “the best Korean movie of 2007.” Who am I to argue?
Which brings us to Indonesia’s KALA, one of the most stunningly fantastical horror noirs you’re ever likely to encounter. This film really snuck up on me, so that by the denouement, which sports a couple of breathtakingly dramatic compositions, I started to break out in goosebumps. We’ve certainly all seen thrillers with heroes who have some kind of physical or psychological challenge (MEMENTO, THE LOOKOUT), so at first I found the protagonist’s narcolepsy to be a bit gimmicky. But rather than milking this premise, writer-director Joko Anwar uses it to provide accents and punctuation. Because struggling reporter Janus (Fachry Albar) slides into unconsciousness at moments of extreme stress—and since in this movie he’s constantly in peril, natch—for long stretches KALA operates as a series of blackout sketches, literally. Similarly, the storyline initially seems to bear a strong resemblance to other movies we’ve seen—everything from THE RING to NATIONAL TREASURE—but again, such superficial comparisons eventually came to strike me as just that, superficial. Still, it’s hard to pinpoint why KALA is so good, so compelling. Certainly the atmospherics help: the cinematography washes everything in burnished coppers and otherworldly golds. Plus, the characters are fresh, the actors likeable, the supernatural angle is suitably freaky, and the subtext thoughtful and challenging: but it’s the way that the former film critic blends and modulates all of these elements that ultimately seduces. Exciting emotionally, politically, even spiritually, KALA is a genre movie that does the entire concept of genre movies proud, reminding us that the best ones have always been allegorical on some level.
Also planting its stakes firmly in noir territory is the Johnnie To/Wai Ka-fai collaboration MAD DETECTIVE. With To teaming once again with star Lau Ching-wan, the result is a mind-bending and narrative-twisting take on a police procedural that is almost ridiculously watchable despite being mercilessly downbeat. With shadows moving like dark waves across the actors, many of whom will be familiar as members of To’s stock repertory company, we’re slowly sucked down into a place where we begin to question our own perceptions as surely as those on screen doubt the title character. Displaying virtuosity at every turn, MAD DETECTIVE is the kind of film that doesn’t just invite multiple viewings, but practically demands them. (SPARROW, To’s other film screening at NYAFF this year, is said to be a sparkling change of pace: a romantic caper flick that sounds like it actually fulfills the aspirations I had for YESTERDAY ONCE MORE.)
Also on tap for NYAFF is Takashi Miike’s LIKE A DRAGON, DORORO, and TOKYO GORE POLICE, which makes THE MACHINE GIRL look more like KIT KITTREDGE: AN AMERICAN GIRL. And let’s not forget L: CHANGE THE WORLD, from RING-meister Hideo Nakata. As I catch up with these, I’ll be sure to report back. Just give me a couple of days to allow my eyeballs to stop smoking.
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