Sweatshop Dolls, a Fashionista's Love Story, and So Much More: The New York Asian Film Festival (NYAFF) Struck Again



Image from "Borderline"

With Mad Hatter Kennedy Jr. stirring up racism with some rather odd theories about Covid; with Oppenheimer A-bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki once more; and with Simu Liu wooing Barbie, one might forget that USA Today reported a new national survey by Stop AAPI Hate suggests "more than ten million Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have experienced acts of discrimination."

Fortunately again, in fact for the 22nd time, NYAFF supplied a solid, cultural one-two punch to the jaw of rampant bigotry.

With over 60 offerings, including eight world premieres, from 15 countries including Singapore, Thailand, and Malaysia, voices seldom reaching our shores, except sporadically on Netflix or more often on Criterion, were heard. And what majestic voices, especially that of director Zhang Wei, whose past and present works were showcased at the fest.


Clearly, Wei's Factory Boss (2014) supplies adequate proof why he deserved such an honor with this unflinching view of capitalism gone awry. Here Yao Anlian portrays one of cinema's more complex capitalists, Lin Dalin, a role that won him numerous Best Actor accolades.

Boss opens with a bit of contexting: "The global financial storm hasn't come to an end yet in 2010, resulting in bankruptcy of thousands of toy factories in China's Guangdong province. Only several have survived."

So be prepared for speedy assembly lines of dismembered doll parts getting readied for the States, an accurate visual metaphor for the workers at Lin’s factory. His laborers haven’t been paid for over two months. Additionally, their lunchbreaks have been cut in half; they are forced to live in elfin dormitory rooms shoehorned with fellow toilers; and when paid, their salaries are below the designated minimum wage. Forget health concerns.

Yes, Lin refuses to have a broken ventilation system repaired causing his employees to breath in toxic fumes throughout their forced-overtime days. One elderly long-time employee even comes down with leukemia. No wonder a company truck is set on fire in protest. Then a strike. Signs read: "Stop exploitation! Pay us!"

Yet Lin claims he's a friend to all who work for him. He's only financially strapped at the moment because the American mega-corporations he deals with drive such hard bargains. And if he closes his factory or moves it to another country such as Burma, where workers rights are said not to be an issue, his 1000 employees will be forced back to their small villages only to live in dire poverty anew.

Along with last year's remarkable Oscar-nominated documentary Ascension, helmed by Jessica Kingdon, that explored nearly all aspects of China's socio-economic carryings-on, even venturing into a life-sized-sex-doll factory, these films display how little we know about our competitor for world power, and how alike we are in so many arenas. That's not totally complementary.


About now, a love story would be a nice change of pace, and Daishi Matysunaga's nigh perfect Egoist fills the bill. Here a wealthy fashion editor, Kosuke (Ryohei Suzuki), who's very friendly with mirrors, decides he needs a trainer to get his body back in prime shape. Why? To garner tender passion and more, of course. The young, cute Ryuta (Hio Miyazawa) is immediately recommended to him at a dinner one night by a pal. He's hired.

After much weightlifting and many sit-ups, the two sweaty souls fall in love on the mattress and off. There's a problem though: Ryuta reveals he dropped out of high school at age 14 to support his mother, and his main current vocation is copulating with the male populace for cash.

Oh, no! Won't working nights and some afternoons with a condom on derail a romance? Well, what if Kosuke becomes Ryuta's lone client and pays him monthly? "I'll buy you," he offers.

What follows is both surprising and beautifully wrought. With a solid script and direction, plus first-rate thesping . . . and with a whole lot of teary Mother-Love incorporated, The Egoist is one of the top queer offerings out so far this year.

Then there's a Quark Henares' Where Is the Lie? This Filipino export is accompanied by the following program note: "You may be thinking that life's too short for another film about catfishing, ghosting and cancel culture. But think again." I have. I have. But my life expectancy, and maybe yours, really seems too brief for this so-called comedy.

I might be erring with my verdict because I only lasted 20 minutes. Feeling guilty I hung around for another seven minutes. So in the odd chance that the next 58 minutes are scintillating, let me add the rest of NYAFF’s notes:

"Where Is the Lie? is that rare work that transforms the genre into something far deeper and more moving, with a humorous and hard-hitting script based on a real-life incident in the Philippines, as well as a star-making performance by luminous trans woman EJ Jallorina."

"But why, oh, why," I ask, “are so many trans folks depicted on cable and on screen as shallow twits?” The performers here are mainly screaming with unvaried intonations. The lead trans character, after being rejected early on by a beau, screams into her phone in a packed café with a child present: "I hope someone slices your penis off, fucker."

The plot has Janzen, a transwoman, being cat-fished by director in the modeling industry named Beanie (a highly intolerable Maris Racal). This Beanie hires a sweet young man (the ingratiating Royce Carera) to seduce Janzen online, even having him pose nude for photos.

Now 26 people on IMDB have so far hammered Where's the Lie? with a 3.1 out of a 10.0 rating, but there are two positive critical reviews on the site that note the venture's political correctness and importance for the Philippines, where transphobia runs rampant. So if your life's not too short, you might just want to decide for yourself where the critical truth lies.


Other highlights of NYAFF include the brutally hard-hitting In Broad Daylight, a suspenseful undercover look at disabled care a la Spotlight. 

The devastating but quite marvelous animated short "Borderline" imagines the afterlife of a young girl from her deathbed onward with the simplest of line drawings.

A young gay man returns home to China after ten years away to visit his homophobic mom in this at-times funny and always wise documentary short "Will You Look at Me?"

If you are seeking unbridled menstrual-cycle silliness about teens who gain super powers, including the ability to fly, all due to that time of the month, Mayhem Girls is for you. Yes, they start robbing banks.


From Iran, in the incisive short "Pufferfish," Ava, a young girl, has to start wearing a hijab and weighing all the rules and guilt that accompany her new identity that began just that morning. Can she still play with her male friend? And what if she must go against her teachings to save a life? As with most of NYAFF offerings, wisdom and humanity win out.

(The Festival, presented by the New York Asian Film Foundation and Film at Lincoln Center, ran from July 14th until July 30th. Please note that many of these films will not gain American distributorship so this would have been your one chance to see them unless you are traveling East, clearly a persuasive reason to become a member of Film at Lincoln Center: https://www.filmlinc.org/membership/)

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