The 16th annual Asian Film Festival of Dallas started this weekend at the local Angelika. Year in and year out, the festival provides a varied selection of interesting contemporary Asian cinema, as well as some choice repertory picks. Thanks to the festival, I’ve been able to see some of my favorite films on the big screen, such as Johnnie To’s Sparrow and Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai.
This year I’ve decided to highlight the festival by writing about some of the films which will be playing over the next week. Out of the films that are not highlighted here, I’m most excited for Takahisa Zeze’s 64, a former pink film director making a two-part adaptation of a famous crime novel. Should be fun!
The Final Master (Xu, 2015)
From the co-writer of Wong Kar Wai’s The Grandmaster comes this rather peculiar martial arts film. It tells the story of the machinations required for an aging martial arts master (Liao Fan) to pass on his Wing Chun expertise, and open up a school in the famous city of Tianjin. Because all of the unwritten rules governing who can practice martial arts in the city, the master is forced to take a wife, an apprentice, and live in relative anonymity, while the role of martial artists in daily life is challenged by the encroaching influence of the military. Xu Haofeng’s film fascinates with intriguing intellectual and emotional undercurrents but never coalesces into a satisfying experience. This is primarily due to the distracting camera movements and edits which often seem unmotivated (notice the bewildering way the camera moves away from the characters to look at a ceiling) and do no further the ideas which drive the film. That said, Xu’s film does acquit itself due to its unwavering focus on the rituals and traditions of his milieu; and the oddity of its eventual showdown (everyone taking turns, the final bosses retreating away from the action politely, an array of weapons and styles on display) which culminates with a final strike that’s over in the blink of an eye. This is an odd, strange creation.
Raman Raghav 2.0 (aka Psycho Raman 2.0) (Kashyap, 2016) (currently on Netflix Instant)
The latest film from Indian maverick, and shrewd self-promoter, Anurag Kashyap, is vastly less interesting than his three previous works. Those films deepened his worldview and his ties to Indian cinema history. Raman Raghav 2.0, on the other hand, is an aggressively point retread of tired cops/criminal sameness that reached its ouroborous apex/nadir with I Saw the Devil. Kashyap’s cinema is a deeply masculine one, and about masculinity. He’s attracted to brash violence and sexual dysfunction, and his best films dissect these attitudes and show them to be empty. But a lot of what drives his films that he also finds these attitudes kind of fun, and his characters fun to spend time with (Gangs of Wasseypur – currently on Netflix as a 8-part miniseries – is basically a realization of that idea). There are some interesting strands here and Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s performance is stylized in a somewhat productive way, but this is still the weakest of his recent work by a wide margin.
Trivisa (Hui + Au + Wong, 2016)
Three debutante directors plucked from the Milkyway ranks combine to tell the story of three master thieves in the eve of the Handover. The entire criminal underworld is excited about the prospect of them working together, and soon enough they each start to entertain the idea. However, Trivisa has other things on its mind. Primarily, this is a film about desperation, and how each of the thieves scrambles to survive in the middle of this uncertain period. The film appears to build towards a great union (and a great heist), but this is deflated as plans quickly implode, and each character is backed into a corner and must act. As with other Milkyway films, the action and technical elements are impeccable, but what registers most is the doom, as each character hurls toward their destiny, unaware of what’s to come.
Duckweed (Han, 2017)
This is a heartwarming film from Han Han, telling the story of a petulant son who travels back into the past to meet his young dad. Most of the film’s success can be traced to MVP Deng Chao, who displays an understated charm, and has wonderful blank-faced reactions to most of what goes around him. So many jokes here are about the lack of understanding regarding the changes that the future will bring (the characters invest in VHS and beepers, and the one character who is into technology is told to settle down and get a real job). The small streets of the town house local tough guys (and their dreams!), but everything is up for sale or has already been sold (the film’s bad guy is the developer who is after a primo piece of real estate and is willing to use violence to get it). There’s also some really interesting rally driving footage (the camera attached to the vehicle’s rear as the vehicle speeds through narrow passages) that’s rather peculiar for this kind of movie. However, I shouldn’t have been surprised as Han Han is a former professional rally rider, as well as a “best-selling author, singer, creator of Party, One (App magazine) and China’s most popular blogger” (per Wikipedia).
Harmonium (Fukada, 2016)
Tadanobu Asano plays an ex-con who arrives at the household of a friend to stay for a few weeks. He quickly integrates into their routine, but also makes clear the fragility of their lives. There is an unnerving quality to both Asano’s performance, his face revealing little of what goes on inside of him (the shock of the red shirt underneath his otherwise all-white dress is one of the key moments in the film), which drives the action in a logical fashion (he represents an unspoken tension) until the film’s halfway point. At this point, Fukada’s film morphs into something else altogether, laying bare all the repressed emotion of the characters in devastating fashion. By the time Mariko Tsutsui’s long-suffering housewife, bathed in red-hued light while driving in a tunnel, discourages another character from offering themselves up to die, you begin to realize the tricky and almost fantastic emotional landscape that the film has entered. Fukada’s film is sneaky like that, and sneakily devastating.