Oh, Reel-y: New York Asian Film Festival

One of the ways that I beat the heat–and set fire to my meager nonprofit paychecks–during the brutal New York City summers is seeing movies at the New York Asian Film Festival. This weekend, between finally reading the great The Great Gatsby and keeping close tabs on the absurd $1 million buy-in poker tournament at the WSOP out in Las Vegas, I made my way up to Lincoln Center to catch some of the latest crazed offerings from cinemas across the Pacific. Today and for the rest of the week, I’ll share some brief thoughts and reactions to what I see at this year’s festival.

***

War of the Arrows
Korea, 2011

War of the Arrows is kinda like Enemy at the Gates, only instead of Russian and German snipers going at it you have North Korean archers ducking arrows Keanu-style. Set during the Qing conquest of Korea in the 1600s, it was the highest-grossing Korean film of 2011. I’ve seen Korea costume period films before, but they usually had some quirky humor thing going on that I didn’t totally dig. This one’s pure adrenal entertainment, with a massive manhunt scene in the latter part of the movie that had my stomach in knots. There’s also a ginormous tiger, river-clearing long jumps, and the tears expected in a Korean melodrama. I don’t know about some of the archery physics in it, from broken to bending arrows, a la Wanted, but that’s just quibbling. This movie makes William Tell look downright amateur. See it if you like making the “Oh shit that was rad” face.

***

Headhunters (Hodejegerne)
Norway, 2011

Okay okay, so Norway isn’t in Asia, nor did I see this at the NYAFF. I was supposed to see Nameless Gangster with a buddy Saturday evening, but that was sold out, so we went and saw this instead. The movie’s about a headhunter with a Napoleon complex who moonlights as an art thief to subsidize a baller lifestyle that he hopes will keep his trophy wife happy. After one heist gone awry, his world falls apart, and he finds himself, literally and metaphorically, neck-deep in shit being chased by Jaime Lannister from Game of Thrones. Headhunters is the latest in a recent run of Scandinavian crime thrillers (hello Stieg Larsson) storming these American shores like the Viking warships of days of yore (is this simile a bit much?).

The strength of this movie lies in the cast, namely the protagonist, played by Aksel Hennie. I haven’t seen much of Hennie’s work, but he crushes it here, shifting from slick to paranoid smoother than an IKEA futon. It also stars Nikolaj Coster-Waldau aka the Kingslayer. Coster-Waldau is solid here, but I must say that he’s getting typecast as a tall, handsome Adonis with a penchant for murder and statuesque blondes. That’s a good gig if you can get it, but in order for me to truly respect him as an actor he’ll have to play against type and go “full retard.”

While the cast is strong, I’m baffled that this movie has a 92% on Rotten Tomatoes. Sure, the movie was very riveting and entertaining, but there were plot holes big enough to drive a semi through (ahem, spoiler alert) and utterly incomprehensible and implausible character motivations and decisions. I also found the tone of the movie to be uneven; it starts off as a sleek and slick thriller before devolving into a Coen Brothers-esque dark comedy with a series of cartoonishly absurd situations. Then, after a pretty satisfying climax that nearly redeems the film, there’s an unnecessary denouement that explains everything in a cutesy fashion that I found irritating and, frankly, a bit insulting.

In any event, if you like your Northern Europeans pretty and your architecture Scandinavian, and you have a heightened ability to suspend your disbelief along with your sense of logic, this movie’s a fun ride.

***

Love in the Buff
Hong Kong, 2012

Don’t be confused by the strange typography in the poster; it’s Love in the Buff, not Love in the Butt as one festival audience member thought. The story in Love in the Buff (sequel to Love in the Puff) is your standard boy meets girl, boy and girl fall in love, boy and girl move in together, boy and girl break up, boy moves to Beijing from Hong Kong for work, girl moves to Beijing from Hong Kong for work, boy and girl run into each other even though they’re now seeing other people, yadda yadda yadda. I was afraid that it might be too relationship-y, but it was actually pretty hilarious. The main characters have great chemistry, and the dialogue is witty and quippy.

Part of the subtext of the film is the shift in film industry clout from Hong Kong to mainland China. Love in the Puff was set in Hong Kong, while Love in the Buff primarily in Beijing, which likely reflects financing as well as increasing audience demand. In his Q&A, the director Pang Ho-cheung mentioned, somewhat jokingly, that he also had to be sure to portray the characters in Beijing in a positive light to get past the censorship boards. Based on his portrayals, it seems that Beijing must be the new Williamsburg, I mean Greenpoint, I mean Bushwick, because all the hip Beijingers have thick-framed glasses, facial hair, and are into non-digital Instagram (i.e., Polaroids).

There are three cameos in the film from Asian pop star types (don’t worry, I don’t know who they are, either). If you’re going to see the movie, however, watch the following music video beforehand and make sure to stay for the credits. Everything will make more sense.



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