From vicious, life-destroying phone scams to balletic battles between equally corrupt cops and yakuza, the New York Asian Film Festival (NYAFF) offers films that reflect contemporary society while offering extreme genre pleasures. There are self-referential takes on cinematic zombies, existential date nights, and teens finding their own corners of the world despite familial and societal expectations.
After last year’s “Sweet Sixteen”, this year’s program is dubbed the “Savage Seventeenth” edition. Running from June 29 to July 15, it offers four world premieres, three international premieres, 21 North American premieres, three U.S. premieres, and twelve New York premieres, showcasing the most exciting comedies, dramas, thrillers, romances, horrors and art-house films from East Asia.
Opening Night is the North American premiere of Tominaga Masanori’s Dynamite Graffiti, an unorthodox and sprightly drama based on the life and times of Japanese porn magazine king Suei Akira, who cultivated future artists such as Araki Nobuyoshi and Moriyama Daido. This spirited tale of sexual exploitation is an ode to free expression, proving that the so-called “smut” of today might very well become the art of tomorrow.
Closing Night is the world premiere of Erik Matti’s BuyBust from the Philippines. On the surface, it is structured like an action film in the vein of The Raid, with Anne Curtis and MMA world champion Brandon Vera as narcs taking down a drug kingpin against insurmountable odds over one unrelenting rainy night. Being a Matti film, it also offers a searing perspective on the ongoing drug war and broader issues of political corruption. The director and stars will attend the screening.
The Centerpiece is the world premiere of Sunny Chan’s Men on the Dragon, starring Francis Ng and Jennifer Yu. The film is a quintessential underdog story about a group of blue-collar workers who reluctantly join their company’s dragon boat team. A directorial debut of a veteran Hong Kong screenwriter, Chan’s film is being presented one year after NYAFF had a special focus on first-time directors from the territory. Chan and Yu will be among the festival’s guests.
Seven films will battle in the second edition of the festival’s re-launched Main Competition: Shiraishi Kazuya’s Blood of Wolves (Japan), Nam Ron’s Crossroads: One Two Jaga (Malaysia), Naito Eisuke’s Liverleaf (Japan), Dong Yue’s The Looming Storm (China), Sunny Chan’s Men on the Dragon (Hong Kong), Jeon Go-woon’s Microhabitat (South Korea), and Treb Monteras’s Respeto (Philippines).
The festival has a rich history of presenting films that deal with the social issue of teenage bullying. In a year when youths in the U.S. are standing their ground and demanding political change, NYAFF presents the North American premieres of three films about teenagers who just won’t take it anymore: Kim Ui-seok’s After My Death, Ogata Takaomi’s The Hungry Lion, and Naito Eisuke’sc ompetition title Liverleaf.
The festival honors its tradition of presenting awards to recognize outstanding talent and filmmakers from Asia that are still under the radar in the West.
Hong Kong’s Dante Lam has been at the creative forefront of the action genre for ten years, when his psycho-thriller Beast Stalker became an instant modern classic. The festival celebrates his career by awarding him the Daniel A. Craft Award for Excellence in Action Cinema and a special 10th anniversary screening of Beast Stalker on 35mm, together with his MMA drama Unbeatable and his latest film Operation Red Sea, which has become the second highest grossing Chinese-language film of all time. Lam attends our opening weekend to discuss his films with long-term producer Candy Leung.
This year, the festival presents two Star Asia Awards. Kim Yun-seok is best known to North American audiences for his role as the grizzled ex-cop in the 2008 serial killer thriller The Chaser. A decade on, he stands firmly in the top tier of his country’s leading men. Like his contemporaries Song Kang-ho and Choi Min-shik, he came late to movies after a background in theater. Jang Joon-hwan’s powerful drama 1987: When the Day Comes screens, in which Kim plays the frightening head of South Korea’s anti-communist bureau, hellbent on holding back the country’s democracy movement.
Jiang Wu’s career has bridged independent cinema and mainstream success for 25 years. Two decades ago, he was at the forefront of a new populist independent cinema about big city life that transformed modern Chinese cinema with Zhang Yang’s Shower. He has worked with Zhang Yimou, Jiang Wen, Jia Zhangke, and Herman Yau. Xin Yukun’s noir western Wrath of Silence will screen in tribute, in which his terrifying nouveau riche mining magnate falls into a trap of his own design.
The Star Asia Lifetime Achievement Award goes to Japan’s Harada Masato, a former U.S.-based film critic. He is most recognizable to Western viewers for his role as the villain Mr. Omura opposite Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai. Since his debut in 1979, he has positioned himself as one of Japan’s most unique and important directors, tackling societal issues such as teenage prostitution, illegal immigrants, and the role of the media. Screening in the festival are his dark classic gem Kamikaze Taxi on 35mm, the recent Kakekomi, a period piece about female empowerment, and his most recent historical epic Sekigahara, about the one-day battle in 1600 that defined modern Japan.
The Hong Kong Panorama, backbone of the festival’s programming, returns with nine features, including two world premieres: Men on the Dragon and Antony Chan’s comeback House of the Rising Sons. Chan returns to the director’s chair after 26 years to present a vibrant biopic that avoids hagiography. Highlighting the miracles of motion and irresistible kinetic force that are the signature of Hong Kong cinema is a three-film Dante Lam tribute. Theres is also an action-packed thriller run on July 4: Jonathan Li’s debut The Brink, Oxide Pang’s The Big Call, and Wilson Yip’s Paradox. Also screening is Chapman To’s family drama set in the world of karate, The Empty Hands, starring Stephy Tang.
The China section continues to take a more central role. One year ago, NYAFF committed to supporting the new generation of first-time directors emerging in Asia with the Young Blood series, focusing on Hong Kong. This year the festival shifts to Mainland China. Once again, the films are diverse in subject matter, including rain-drenched thriller The Looming Storm, Inner Mongolia-set sexagenarian drama Old Beast, and the razor-sharp comedy Looking for Lucky. The section also presents films about the shifting rules of romance: Dude’s Manual and The Ex-Files 3: The Return of the Exes.
The New Cinema from Japan lineup is represented by one of the festival’s largest contingents of directors yet. In addition to NYAFF’s tribute to veteran director Harada Masato, the festival is bringing a group that could be described as defining a “new wave” of Japanese cinema: Naito Eisuke with his circle-of-revenge drama Liverleaf, Ogata Takaomi with experimental youth drama The Hungry Lion, Takeshita Masao with slow-burn drama The Midnight Bus, and Kanata Wolf with his slacker debut Smokin’ on the Moon. Also attending is actor Emoto Tasuku who brings his mischievous charm to the protagonist of porn publishing odyssey Dynamite Graffiti. Other highlights include Sato Shinsuke’s cross-generational superhero showdown Inuyashiki, Ueda Shinichiro’s meta zombie film One Cut of the Dead, and Yukisada Isao’s brutal youth drama River’s Edge.
There are ten films in the South Korean Cinema section. This year, female-directed titles represent almost half of the NYAFF selection. They include Jeon Go-woon’s competition title Microhabitat, Yim Soon-rye’s Little Forest, and Jeong Ga-young’s Hit the Night.
The festival selected five films showcasing the uniqueness of Taiwan cinema and the strength of both its art-house productions and genre output. Of note is the North American premiere of gangster film Gatao 2: Rise of the King. In complete contrast is The Last Verse, which charts a romantic relationship through the turbulence of three presidential eras.
This year’s program features the largest Southeast Asian Vanguard selection yet, representing a fifth of the festival lineup. The festival goes all-in on the Philippines with three strong films examining the nation’s ongoing drug war: Mikhail Red’s Neomanila, about a “mother-and-son” death squad; Treb Monteras’ Respeto, set in the milieu of rap battles; and Erik Matti’s BuyBust. There will also be a special screening of Matti’s thriller On the Job. On opening night, NYAFF hosts the world premiere of Richard Somes’s brutal We Will Not Die Tonight, starring Erich Gonzales as a stuntwoman trying to survive a single night. On a lighter note, Irene Villamor’s blockbuster Sid & Aya (Not a Love Story) screens.
There has been a recent Malaysian New Wave reflecting the country’s societal and political changes, and it is only now reaching our cinema screens. NYAFF presents two films that would never have seen the light before 2018: police corruption thriller Crossroads: One Two Jaga and black magic thriller Dukun. The latter is the long-buried debut of top Malaysian director Dain Said, screening twelve years after its shoot was completed.
The western genre is embraced by Mike Wiluan’s Buffalo Boys from Indonesia, which screens on the final day of the festival. Like their Northeast Asian counterparts (the Manchurian western), Southeast Asian takes on the genre offer tales of freedom and emancipation with Eastern heroes rising against their colonial oppressors. This year, Wisit Sasanatieng’s madcap Tears of the Black Tiger returns in a special 35mm screening.
NYAFF will also present “Safe Imagination Is Boring”, a group exhibition of 10 emerging artists who have created new work inspired by Asian cinema. The exhibition features Asian, second-generation Asian-American, and mixed-race artists.
This year, several free talks, sponsored by HBO, will be held at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center’s Amphitheater. They include opportunities for NYAFF audiences to meet festival guests from Japan, China, and Southeast Asia and discuss their careers, trends, and regional genre cinema. Guest speakers include Harada Masato, Dong Yue, Xin Yukun, Erik Matti, and Mike Wiluan.
The New York Asian Film Festival is co-presented by Subway Cinema and the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Full details are available at the Subway Cinema website.