Sunday, August 23, 2020

New York Asian Film Festival 2020 Edition: Aug 28 - Sept 12 | Virtual Festival Exhibitions

Born of necessity, film festival programmers have responded to the global pandemic in a variety of ways in the past six months. Generally by cancelling 2020 editions altogether, optimistically postponing, or going online with virtual theatrical exhibitions. Even Cannes, the world's most prestigious and influential festival did not host a physical edition. But have instead opted to organize events in other festivals in the coming year, what they termed “Cannes hors les murs”. Cannes also joined Berlin, Venice, Toronto, New York and other major film festivals to present the free live streaming fundraiser, We Are One: A Global Film Festival spanning late May to June. This past summer there are also a number of significant Asian and Japanese-specific festivals that have found themselves unable to host a physical edition this year and have transitioned into the virtual. The Japan Times have assembled an overview, "Asia-themed Film Festivals Migrate Online Amid Coronavirus Pandemic" of the highlights to be seen namely from Hamburg's Nippon Connection, and this year's Japan Cuts, New York. Beyond these Japanese-centric festivals, there are the larger Asia-inclusive festivals both domestically and abroad. Of them, the Locarno Film Festival has emerged as one of the most important western festivals to support Asian cinema, particularly works without commercial distribution prospects. For mainland Chinese filmmakers, the affirmation and support from the global independent film industry has become more crucial in recent years. By way of example, China’s most prominent arthouse director, "A Guy From Fenyang" by the name of Jia Zhang-ke, would not have had the global reach of a "Filmmaker Giving Voice to Acts of Rage in Today’s China", without the support of the international festival circuit. Those filmmakers are also aware that as recently as 2010, Locarno awarded the Golden Leopard, it's top prize, to an unknown Chinese director for Li Hongqi's “Winter Vacation”. Further bolstering it's role in supporting independent film from mainland China and broader Asian subcontinent, Locarno established “Bridging the Dragon", a traveling workshop aiming to foment co-production partnerships for both European and Chinese films. So it is that "Chinese Independent Filmmakers Look to Locarno" in growing numbers and diversity.

Of particular note, a quartet of masterful films emerge from Chinese mainland directors in the last few years. Representing for China's sixth generation was the director at the spearhead of mainland cinema for over two decades now, Jia Zhang-ke. The eerily futurist sheen of his "Ash Is Purest White" lent a distinct glow to the social realist grit of the director's recent turn into crime drama. The second would be the dream of a movie that is Bi Gan's sophomore effort, "Long Day's Journey Into Night". The first hour centers around the noirish pursuit of a love from years past, setting the tone for film's extended set piece in its second half. All of which culminating in a highly stylized and oneiric cinematic voyage, wherein "Long Day’s Journey Into Night Follows its Own Woozy Dream Logic". In a similar tone, and borrowing the brilliant cinematography of Jingsong Dong, Diao Yinan's "The Wild Goose Lake", goes some way beyond its suggestively neorealist underworld settings, into a strange and labyrinthine maze of crime, duplicity, and pursuit. This "Noir Thriller in Wuhan", probes the cracks and fissures of contemporary Chinese society through the story of a fugitive gangster and the call girl who accompanies him, on his journey toward retribution and eventual self-sacrifice. Most elusive of this quartet of films was the single directorial work by novelist Hu Bo before his untimely suicide in late 2017 at the age of 29. Based on the story from his novel "Huge Crack" of that same year, Hu's extended duration film swept critical attention and gained great notice at this past year's Berlin International Film Festival. Unrelenting as its tone and duration may be, “An Elephant Sitting Still” proves a delicately layered, subtly shot work that distinguishes itself.

Which brings us to the offerings from this year's New York Asian Film Festival. Beginning with a set of films from both established and rising Japanese directors, blockbuster director Keishi Otomo reveals a contemplative side with his first arthouse film, “Beneath the Shadow”, and the always interesting Sabu gives us another supernatural thriller with, “Dancing Mary”. Mariko Tetsuya's "Miyamoto" amps up the melodrama and histrionics inspired by the manga of the same name, and star actor, Joe Odagiri is joined by a stellar cast and crew on, “They Say Nothing Stays the Same". Which includes legendary cinematographer Christopher Doyle alongside a cast comprising Akira Emoto, Masatoshi Nagase, Tadanobu Asano and Yu Aoi, plus a rare appearance from YMO's Haruomi Hosono. Hong Kong cinema is represented by one of its longest consistent voices with “Chasing Dream" from Johnnie To, alongside Yuen Kim Wai's crime thriller, “Legally Declared Dead". In a new twist for South Korean cinema, Yoon Dan-bi's breakout at the Rotterdam film festival, “Moving On", owes much to Japanese auteurs of quiet familial melodrama the likes of Yoji Yamada and Hirokazu Kore-eda, and rightly shouldn't be missed. The various directors behind the anthology series, “SF8", have assembled eight stand-alone 52-minute science fiction films which have drawn comparisons with "Black Mirror", and Korea continues to shine in the intersection of pop, arthouse genre, and animation with Cho Kyung-hun's "Beauty Water". Also on offer is a feminine sendup of the Hong Sang-soo genre of filmmaking jubilantly on display in Kim Cho-hee's "Lucky Chan-sil". In a similar vein, Kim Do-young explores the complexities of its protagonist's navigating of the world of men in "Kim Ji-Young, Born 1982", and indie film star Lee Joo-young gives a tour-de-force performance traversing another male-dominated cultural setting in Choi Yoon-tae's "Baseball Girl". Taiwanese cinema is rightly on offer in Shih Li's bitter and poetic, "Wild Sparrow”, and no Asian film festival would be complete without a serving of contemporary psychodrama and horror, found in Emir Ezwan's "Roh", and Layla Zhuqing Ji's “Victim(s)”.