"No film is an island," Stephen Teo notes in The Asian Cinema Experience, and nowhere is that sentiment more apparent than at this year’s New York Asian Film Festival. This showcasing of over 70 offerings from such countries as Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, China, Taiwan, Singapore, Thailand, plus the U.S. upends any notion you might have of any country's singular national identity. There’s an interplay here sometimes between cultures within a film (The Asian Angel) or the universal handling of a social challenge such as the current pandemic (All U Need Is Love).
This signature festival, now in its twentieth year, is needed for so many reasons, not just for spotlighting important auteurs who would otherwise not gain exposure upon our shores. NYAFF can also serve as a salve to counter the attacks on Asian-Americans within our 16 largest cities that have risen by 164% during just the first quarter of 2021. Never underestimate the power of cinema. If Birth of a Nation could rebirth the Ku Klux Klan, why can't the continuing efforts of the New York Asian Film Association and Film at Lincoln Center accomplish the opposite?
One offering that might add fuel to that thought is Yuya Ishii's The Asian Angel, a dramedy with a dash of the fantastic. Here a young widowed Japanese novelist, Takeshi, arrives in Seoul with his 8-year-old son on the promise of new beginnings detailed in a letter from his ex-patriate brother Toru. The pair's first hours, however, in a country with a language they don't speak are a bit unnerving. First, their taxi driver from the airport curses a lot and won’t take them all the way to their destination. Secondly, a news site on Takeshi's cellphone reports: "Japanese-Korean relations are at a post-war low." Finally, the man who greets them in Toru's apartment immediately manhandles the dad and is about to throw him down a staircase just when the dear brother finally arrives home.
Ah, all is good, Toru promises, even though he was joking in the letter he sent his bro. There's certainly no need to worry. Takeshi can join his smuggling operation, sneaking Korean cosmetics over the border to women worldwide so they can have smooth skin
Meanwhile, across town, the lovely Sol, a singer in a department store, is discovering her dream of stardom is quickly going down the escalator. The president of her management company, who’s also her lover, fires her post-coitus. This Weinstein-esque chap certainly has no regrets, after all he has at least five other gals on his cellphone to turn to. But how is Sol going to now support her two adult siblings who are both in need of major succor? No easy remedy is in sight.
Well, look to the heavens. Eventually our Romeo meets our Juliet, but the two can barely converse in broken English. That might be just enough after circumstances cause Takeshi and his brood to share a car with Sol's clan. The former threesome is in search of exportable seaweed by the ocean, and the second grouping is trekking to the countryside to honor their mother on the anniversary of her death. Add the fact, that both Takeshi and Sol have had run-ins in the past with the same unattractive angel who bites, and you know love is in the air. Clearly, even when nations might not get along, their citizens certainly can, and they even might achieve a pocket-sized, deliriously touching utopia in the end.
Before you criticize Vincent Kok's All U Need Is Love as a less than utopian entertainment, please note that this coronavirus slapstick comedy with its all-star ensemble cast (e.g Louis Koo, Tony Leung) is said to be a "benefit effort for Hong Kong industry workers affected by the COVID-19 epidemic" that has been shepherded along by the Hong Kong Performing Artistes Guild, the Federation of Hong Kong Filmmakers, and numerous local studios.
Love opens at an airport with an invigorating James-Bond action segment where a handsomely stoic but unmasked gent is chased every which way though aghast crowds by dozens of masked pursuers. Oh no! He’s caught and arrested for having been exposed to the virus.
Jump to the Grande Hotel, where it's been discovered many positive carriers of the virus have last been situated. Suddenly, the whole hotel is quarantined for two weeks. Thus begin the crazed antics of the booked guests who are forced to entertain themselves while the president of the hotel is trying to escape this enforced lockdown while his brother is repeatedly trying to kill him.
Imagine three poorly written, overacted episodes of The Love Boat possibly starring Charo, Phyllis Diller, and Ernest Borgnine and you might have a sense of what you are getting into. At 47 minutes into Love, I was ready to bang my head against the wall. However, at 49 minutes, I sort of settled down and began enjoying the whole shebang. Especially fine are Julian Cheung and Louis Cheung as two rival triad leaders, who, when forced to share the same room, discover they are homoerotically turned on by each other.
The other subplots seem to have sprung from a time when no one could envision the #MeToo movement. Most of the gals depicted here are either prostitutes or whiny wenches. The guys fare little better, being depicted as inept, dominated spouses, sex-starved loonies, or bungling boobies. There are exceptions, but far less than a handful.
Yet the title tells all. Yes, in the end, humanity, with thanks to L-O-V-E) wins out. (Sadly, the filmmakers couldn't get the rights to the Beatles' song.) And if you are looking for some analytical depth here, you might see the Grande Hotel as a stand-in for Hong Kong society with the hotel president as a metaphor for corrupt political leadership. However, probably no one involved was intending that. They just wanted some good, broad laughs.
Takahiro Horie's Sensei, Would You Sit Beside Me? is definitely ready for a Stateside remake. Sort of a Japanese Marriage Story, Sensei tells of a pair of wed manga authors who have lately been distant from each other. Sawako suspects her spouse, Toshio, of having an affair. He tells her to get driving lessons. She agrees, even though she decides he wants her to leave her self-sufficient when he dumps her,
One day, while searching her room at her mother's house, Toshio discovers Suwako's latest project, a manga about a woman who discovers her husband is having an affair so she conveniently falls in love with her driving instructor. Is this truth or fiction? Suwako’s real-life instructor is handsome but . . .?????
Spirited, touching, and droll, Sensei is one of the many must-sees at the NYAFF. After all, in what other film, can the following line be one of seduction? "With you sitting beside me, I can press the gas pedal."
Min Kyu-dong's The Prayer, could easily be mistaken for an episode of Black Mirror. Hey, wait! I thought I was being astute. It says as much in the Festival's notes.
Well, anyway, in a future home for the infirm, all of the nurses are robots imported to Korea from Germany. One, a higher-priced model, has been taking care of the same comatose patient for over a decade. Programmed not only to take care of the noncommunicative being on the bed, she/it is also programmed to be responsible for the woman’s daughter, who relays that her life is no longer worth living while her mom lives.
Uh-oh! What is a robot to do? This one phones up the nun, who left her calling card behind earlier in the week. The nun not knowing her caller isn’t human, initiates the nurse into an awareness of God and prayer. But is God open to a mechanical creature’s worship? The final haunting fifteen minutes make the whole episode worthwhile viewing, clearly a finale that worth writing home about.
The above are just a sprinkling of the often-dynamic films being showcased by the NYAFF, entertainment that you can experience both virtually or in-person. The Festival which began on August 6th runs until August 22nd. There really isn't a better way for a cinephile to spend the next two weeks.
(NYAFF TICKET PRICING AND INFO:
Tickets for the 20th New York Asian Film Festival go on sale Friday, July 23 at noon.
Virtual tickets & passes:
$12 each for general public, $9.60 for FLC members (discounted ticket) for all virtual titles.
$150 discounted FLC All-Access Pass for all virtual titles.
In-person tickets & passes:
In-person single tickets (for both FLC and SVA):
$15 each for general public, $12 for students / seniors (62+) /persons with disabilities; $10 for FLC members (discounted tickets).
$60 for 6 films at FLC only (six-film FLC All-Access Pass).
$250 for an in-person pass for screenings at the SVA Theatre (29 films).)