NYAFF Festival Dispatch #1: Films from the Other Side of the Universe

Subway Cinema‘s New York Asian Film Festival at the IFC Center is one of three festivals in New York City I attend every single year, because this curatorial collective consistently find the wildest, most interesting contemporary Asian cinema you’ve never seen before. Here’s a taste of what I’ve been seeing.

clone01

The Clone Returns Home

THE CLONE RETURNS HOME (Japan, 2008)

The Japanese space program, already hurting for resources and budget, faces the demise of a veteran astronaut in a minor space station repair operation. Vowing to prevent similar tragic, public occurrences in the future, the space program asks astronaut Kohei Takahara to consent to a cloning/memory recording process in the off-chance of a repeat tragedy.

When Kohei dies on an outer hull space walk, the clone policy is activated — and the moral question of the film comes into focus. One of the reasons Kohei had been uncomfortable about cloning policy stemmed from the childhood death of his own twin brother. When Kohei (the Second) is restored to life, with the body and memories of the original, his consciousness tangles up in these memories of the past — memories he had spent a lifetime repressing — and he is unable to progress internally through his past memories to reach his clone-template’s own present. Most painfully, he is unable to recognize his emotionally shattered wife. While the cloning facility successfully modeled the astronaut’s body and memory, what of the astronaut’s consciousness and soul?

This film was a Sundance Film Festival darling this year, and was one of the strongest films I have seen at NYAFF so far. While thematically (at times aesthetically) the film echoes Solaris, Lem’s excellent novel as well as Tarkovsky’s feature (playing at the Walter Reade in early July), I’d caution the viewer from thinking too much about Tarkovsky or Kubrick when catching Kanji Nakajima film. The film establishes its own rhythm and breath separate from its predecessors. Still, Michael Atkinson’s write-up about Solaris/Clone at Criterion.com is worth a look.

Written By

Written By

WRITTEN BY (Hong Kong, 2009)

As a huge fan of Johnnie To and Wai Ka-Fai ‘s Mad Detective (2007) from NYAFF ’08, I highly anticipated catching the international premiere of Wai Ka-Fai’s idiosyncratic, emotionally devastating Written By at NYAFF ’09.

A tragic car wreck ends the life of the father (the inimitable Lau Ching-wan), blinds daughter Melody, and leaves mother/wife and son injured and inconsolable. Some years later, facing the unlikelihood that her mother will ever again be happy, daughter Melody comes up with a plan: she will write a novel. In this work of fantasy, the father will survive the car wreck, though blind, while the rest of the family instead dies.

But given that this is a Wai Ka-Fai film, it is not enough to stop there. In her novel, her father attempts to console himself for his loss by writing a novel. In this novel-within-a-novel, it will be possible for his wife to return as a ghost, the son to be reborn as a puppy, and the daughter to apprentice herself to Meng Po (figure from Chinese realm of the dead) to make this wizardry possible. But a second tragedy reverberates across the structure of both novels. As the film spirals deeper and deeper through its impact, director Wai Ka-Fai creates a remarkably mature and challenging portrait of the limits of our success to assuage experiences of deep loss through our fictions.

Dream

Dream

DREAM (Korea, 2008)

When I heard the English title of Korean auteur Kim Ki-duk‘s (Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring, 2003) latest film, I felt a twinge of concern: given the eccentric, elliptical quality to his previous narratives, what wildness was in store for me this time? With Samaritan Girl (2004) and The Isle (2000), Kim switches narrative strategies midstream, dropping central POV characters and dollying back to the critical distance of parable just when I  hope to learn more about character’s internal lives. (As much as I protest at the time, Kim’s decision tends to connect with me by the time I make it back to the subway.)

While the atmospheric landscapes and striking images are there as ever, the narrative at the heart of Dream is atypically coherent, even pitch-able high concept: When Jin (Joe Odagiri, Plastic City) dreams, a woman he has never met before, sleepwalker Ran (Lee Na-Young), acts out his dreams, with a crucial qualification: When Jin dreams of catching up to his ex-girlfriend who broke his heart, Ran acts out his fantasy by stumbling back to the horrible man she ran away from and seducing him.

As with all of Kim’s films, this film has a deeply serious metaphysical and moral inquiry at its heart — are we responsible for our dreams, what effects do our dreams have upon other people? And spending time with Jin and Ran, complementary opposites struggling to keep each other from sleeping at the same time, I come to a similar conclusion to the dream shaman: she  advices them to fall love with each other instead of resolving their issues with their exes. Ah, but it is a Kim Ki-duk film, so easy solutions are unlikely to do the trick here.

— Matthew Griffin

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