The New York Asian Film Festival showcased an excellent selection of fun and unique films this year.
I was fortunate to attend a number of the festival’s screenings, both in person and through virtual cinema vis Film at Lincoln Center. I reviewed a few of their films individually: Midnight, Office Royale, and American-ish (the latter of which was one of the winners of the NYAFF Audience Award), but I wanted to highlight more films that stood out to me during the festival:
Hand Rolled Cigarette: Following Kwan Chiu (Gordon Lam), a retired British Chinese soldier who’s forced to take in a thief, Mani (Bipin Karma), on the run from gangsters, director Chan Kin-long’s Hong Kong neo-noir is brutal and uncompromising. The Chungking Mansions where the film occurs feels old, rustic, and bursting from the seems with grit. Every frame of this movie has characters the feel deserving of their own film. This world feels lived in, used, like it could fall apart at any second. The sound design for the setting and action is physical, as you feel every crack and punch viscerally. The environment reflects the characters’ tension, whether it’s Chiu’s rage and frustration or Mani’s desperation. The performances are excellent, especially Gordan Lam’s stunning performance as Chiu. His take on a man haunted by his past is breathtaking, with every subtle jab or fascial expression oozing raw emotion like smoke from a cigarette. He’s magnetic and made me want to learn about what the hell happened to this guy. The film also knows how to use its environment to communicate its themes regarding economic desperation and racism without needing to spell it out, a perfect example of “show don’t tell.” Hand Rolled Cigarette is a hard-hitting gut-punch of a film.
Ninja Girl– a fun movie that has a “group of friends got together to make a film” kind of vibe; director Yu Irie departed from his usual bombastic filmmaking style to make a chill indie project. Shot during the Covid pandemic, this Japanese political satire about Miu (Saki Fukuda), a shy city worker who learns of her ninja heritage and battles racist government officials, is equal parts funny and oddly relaxing. The tone is not as over-the-top as the premise may suggest, but the more low-key direction makes the absurdist nature of the premise funnier. Saki Fukuda’s down-to-earth performance as Miu carries the film confidently while still having agency and personality. I loved her infectious pop-music scored training montages, which are a lot more relatable than I’m willing to admit. Her relationship with her grandfather is a unique take on the “master/pupil” kung fu dynamic, showing how its genre premise can work with the film’s realistic setting. Seeing her fight her racist local government in a way that reflects her character growth makes them rewarding to watch. Ninja Girl is an endearing film combining the fun of a genre flick with a twee indie comedy.
Con-Heartist– A hilarious Thai screwball romantic comedy, Con-Heartist follows Ina (Pimchanok Leuwisetpaiboon) as she teams up with a con artist, Tower (Nadech Kugimiya), to get back at her ex. The romance works as both Leuwisetpaiboon and Kugimiya have excellent chemistry and play off of each other nicely when they’re planning their con. Their banter and will they-won’t they backtalk is cute, as they both show off gleaming personalities. The comedy film is hysterical with many memorable characters that get their moments to shine without drawing focus away from the leads. Director Mez Tharatorn knows how to stage cartoonish set pieces while using the characters’ charm to keep you grounded. His comedy focuses on his characters’ arcs and the story, not getting lost in the wacky sound bites or set pieces. This focus lends the film a likability that, in lesser hands, would be annoying, and I ate up. I loved this movie, and I can’t wait to watch it again.
The Book of Fish– A Korean black-and-white period piece about Joseon era scholar Jeong Yak-jeon (Sol Kyung-gu), exiled during the Catholic Persecution of 1801; the film follows his mentorship of Chang-dae (Byun Yo-han) while simultaneously writing a book on marine life and fishing. Directed by Lee Joon-ik, the film’s gorgeous cinematography and timeless ideas about applied knowledge and exploitation struck me. It’s a surprisingly accessible film. I’m not really knowledgeable about Korean history, and I’m sure those who are will get more out of the film than I did, but I still loved the film, and its themes and characters really drew me in. The film’s greatest strength is in its two leads. Chang-dae and Jeong Yak-jeon’s friendship is infectious, and they play off of each other nicely. I love seeing Jeong Yak-jeon get excited about learning about marine life, his curiosity and desire to learn actively giving him life. It’s fun watching him turn from a wise old scholar into an excited kid making a volcano for a science project. At the same time, Chang-dae’s earnestness to learn and become a noble is understandable, whether you believe he wants to help people, be closer to his father, or if he just wants a better life. As philosophically earnest as the film is, it’s not stuffy; the humor in the film is pretty funny, making the film feel alive. You will grow to love the bit characters in the film as much as the leads. Every character in the film has value, which is proof that a filmmaker genuinely loves his film.
Sinkhole– this Korean disaster movie about building tenants trapped in a sinkhole is an effective and intense experience. While it takes a bit of time to get going, and the effects are pretty questionable, it won me over by the end with its compelling character drama. Director Kim Ji-hoon understood that a disaster movie can’t get lost in its set-pieces and needs compelling characters to invest in. Sinkhole has empathetic characters with relatable conflicts and engaging performances, most notably the two leads Cha Seung-won and Kim Sung-kyun. Kim Ji-hoon also makes an interesting choice to direct the film with a lighter tone, with bits of comedy to give his characters time to breathe. The approach works, making them feel human. It was rewarding seeing a disaster movie where I actually cared about the characters.
Junk Head– I want to live in this movie, or at least, I want to explore this movie. A winner of the NYAFF audience award, this stop-motion Japanese film is the brainchild of Takahide Hori, who directed, wrote, edited, animated, composed, and provided almost all the voice acting for the film. For an hour and 45-minute feature, that’s admirable enough, and his effort pays off in this entertaining film. The story is simple, set in a post-apocalyptic dystopia and following the adventures of a human sent underground to find a new way to repopulate the human race. Still, its simple story is fine to showcase the animation. Takahide Hori’s creativity is unmatched, entirely on display, creating a world that feels alien. The rustic and slapdash junk-filled setting feels real for this world, while the mutated creatures and people look grotesquely gorgeous. Wisely, Hori doesn’t lean on his animation; the lore for the world and personality for his characters rewards viewers who dig deeper. Junk Head is a treat, and I hope to be sent back to Hori’s world soon.
Spiritwalker: a gripping Korean thriller, Spiritwalker follows a man (Yoon Kyesang) who wakes up with no memory and in a new body. As he discovers that he swaps bodies every twelve hours, the man races to discover his true identity, find his real body, and survive a gangster ladened conspiracy. Spiritwalker is full of intrigue and genre thrills thanks heavily to the direction of Yoon Jae-geun. He keeps the pacing fast and the action hitting hard. The plot unravels accessibly, reflecting the lead’s stress and confusion from his memory loss, without confusing the audience by being too ambiguous. It helps that the man acts as as an audience surrogate while still having enough personality to stand on his own. Yoon Kyesang guides us confidently through the story, delivering a strong urgent performance and impressive fight scenes. Spiritwalker is a solid, stylish, thriller that’ll leave fans of the genre satisfied.
Anima: A unique and daring Chinese drama and the debut film of writer Jinling Cao, Anima challenges the lead’s environmentalist convictions through this reflective tale. The film won the NYAFF Uncaged Award for Best Feature Film, and it was absolutely deserved. In the story of Linzi (Eric Wang), an indigenous lumberjack who’s regularly forced to choose between his relationship with the forest and the modern world closing in, the film boldly challenges his environmental beliefs by making his conflict personal. His romantic and spiritual connections to the woodlands feel natural, while the importance of the practicalities of modern life is given weight and high stakes. Linzi is incredibly empathetic. I didn’t agree with some of Linzi’s choices, but I understood his anxiety, especially regarding how his upbringing influenced his attachment to nature. Environmentalism isn’t political or a cheap trope in Anima; it’s personal, and the values behind it are tough to maintain as his responsibilities grow. The cinematography is also beautiful, capturing the natural majesty of nature to reflect how Linzi sees the forest. It’s is a challenging film that will force audiences to test their convictions and question their sensibilities, as any great film should. Anima is my favorite film to come out of NYAFF, and I’m excited for more people to check it out.
Be sure to keep all of these films on your radar as they either go through the festival circuit or prepare for wide release.