NYAFF Festival Dispatch #2 – For Better Summer Fun, Grab Blockbusters from Elsewhere

It’s summer, yay! You could be watching Transformers 2, but you would be better entertained catching the spirited critical lambast hoisted at it (especially here and here).

Thankfully, There are other options: I’ve been attending Subway Cinema’s New York Asian Film Festival at the IFC Center. Here’s another tasting menu of mini-reviews from the festival bringing to New York City some of the most interesting contemporary Asian cinema you have never seen before.

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20th CENTURY BOYS, Chapter One / 20th CENTURY BOYS, Chapter Two: The Last Hope (2008)

Do you remember inventing stories about the future with your grade school friends? What secrets would adulthood hold for you, your friends, your playground enemies? Naoki Urasawa‘s manga epic — manga’s The Watchmen — considers: “what if you were confronted with your childhood playground fantasies as an adult?” Not the fluffy talking bunny pal or the castle-fort in a local park, but the scariest nightmare that you and your little friends came up with: the villain mastermind your gang would band together to overcome. Would the pushing forty adult-you be up to the challenge of saving the world, the task you assigned yourself as a child?

Director Yukihiko Tsutsumi’s three-film epic treatment of this epic subject offers audiences a remarkably close adaptation — in terms of narrative, casting, and even camera framing — of the original manga. While this film might be poppier fare than Shūsuke Kaneko’s mature, challenging Death Note adaptations from NYAFF ’07, and less crowd-pleasing than Shimako Sato’s K-20, Tsutsumi’s summer blockbuster-scale production nonetheless brings to the subversive, culturally critical source material compelling performances and memorable images unlike any $800 million dollar blockbuster you will ever see again. Confronted with the challenge of compressing 4k manga-pages into even a generous 5 hours, Tsutsumi reorders the narrative to deliver jaw-dropping, paradigm-switching end-sequences for the climax of both Chapter One and Chapter Two. An improvement over occasional meandering “why is this story not over?” feeling of the original.

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K-20: LEGEND OF THE MASK (Japan, 2008)

Drawing from a number of masked man action/adventure references, from Fantomas to Zorro, director Shimako Sato compiles a new blockbuster franchise from the character “K-20: the Fiend with Twenty Faces.” In an alternative universe 1949 (in which World War II never took place), Tesla has survived to invent his electrical energy broadcast technology, and the division between the Japanese aristocracy and the disenfranchised poor resembles, well, contemporary America. A new loud-cackling villain is on the loose: a man assuming perfect false identities in order to steal precious objects and technology from the aristocratic and scientific community. Because no one knows what K-20 looks like, the naive wrong-place-wrong-time circus acrobat Hekichi Endo (Takeshi Kaneshiro) gets fingered as the bad guy. His efforts to escape and redeem himself lead him to train in the very skills the real K-20 mastered. Sato’s film is a surprisingly successful crowd-pleaser, a Speilberg-at-his-prime steampunk adventure film.

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TACTICAL UNIT: COMRADES IN ARMS (Hong Kong, 2008)

Milkyway veteran director Law Wing-cheong‘s feature joins other broadcast and theatrical films created with the same team of actors and creative staff over the past few years in the wake of  Johnnie To’s successful Hong Kong police franchise PTU (2003). Comrades in Arms follows two infighting factions of a Hong Kong PTU assigned to pursue armed bank robbers into the mountains. While in many ways this film is simply the latest pressing of a well-respected, well-oiled creative team, the performances and solid filmmaking effortlessly set this film above Hollywood police action fare, and I admire the piece enough to track down To and Law’s other Milky Way “Tactical Unit” pictures.

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EYE IN THE SKY (Hong Kong, 2008)

Another police procedural offering from Hong Kong-based Milkyway. This debut film directed by veteran screenwriter Yau Nai-hoi (wr. Election (2005), The Mission (1999)) leverages its subject matter, the Hong Kong Police Department SU (surveillance unit), to permit a compelling (if frenzied) camera-and-cutting style that distinguishes it from the PTU series and any other police/crime films in the NYAFF series. Locating itself in style and content somewhere between the unspeakably dangerous (Bond-free) UK contemporary espionage/counter-terrorism series Spooks/MI5 and Greengrass’s overdriven, grab-at-a-glance Bourne Ultimatum, Yau’s film manages to turn the media-as-metaphor suggested by surveillance footage into an engaging, accomplished feature that I continue to recommend.

-Matthew Griffin

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