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Zen Parables And Gunplay

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New York Asian Film Festival expansive, but odd gaps too

At this point, American theatrical releases of subtitled films are a luxury. Major European directors like Chantal Akerman, Eric Rohmer, Jacques Rivette, and Alain Resnais have seen their recent work come out straight to DVD here.

The New York Asian Film Festival offers a rare chance to see work by promising directors such as Katushito Ishii and Ryucihi Hiroki, who haven’t yet attracted American distributors’ attention. Despite the commercial success of Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and Zhang Yimou’s “Hero,” releasing Asian films in America remains an iffy proposition. Park Chan-wook’s “Oldboy” and Kim Ki-duk’s “Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring” were art house hits, but their follow-ups didn’t reach nearly as large an audience.

Even though Korean cinema has become increasingly hip over the past few years, films like Im Sang-soo’s “The President’s Last Bang” and Hong Sang-soo’s “Woman Is the Future of Man” have played festivals to acclaim and then gone on to flop in release.

Wellspring, one of America’s most adventurous distributors, has shut down its theatrical arm. Palm Pictures, which released a series of films by major Asian directors a few years ago—all of which tanked—has backed away from the continent. The Weinstein Company has acquired a number of Asian films, including Hong Kong great Tsui Hark’s “Seven Swords,” but Harvey Weinstein’s track record at Miramax—cutting and dubbing films when he wasn’t leaving them to rot on the shelf—doesn’t make one hopeful that they’ll get respectful treatment.

In this hostile climate, a program like the New York Asian Film Festival is vital. Unfortunately, distributors and sales agents have kept some of the past year’s most interesting Asian films out of its reach. That’s the reason no Hong Kong films are included in this year’s festival—Johnnie To’s excellent gangster opus “Election” is particularly missed—and why it’s showing Takashi Miike’s tepid “The Great Yokai War” rather than his “Big Bang Love,” which critic Olaf Moller describes as “Genet meets Fassbinder via Samuel R. Delany.”

To compensate, the NYAFF has organized one of its most ambitious programs ever, a retrospective of work directed and produced by Indian filmmaker Ram Gopal Varma.

Riichiro Mashima and Masaki Kobayashi’s sports mockumentary “Ski Jumping Pairs: Road To Torino 2006” started out as Mashima’s student film short. It should probably have never been extended to a feature. The directors are quite adept at mimicking the TV documentary form, down to cheesy reenactments and zooms into photos. However, “Ski Jumping Pairs” is a satire without a real target, just a constant buzz of low-level absurdity.

It starts off with an inspired concept—the sport of ski jumping pairs was conceived by a physicist who discovered that at temperatures below freezing, objects in flight duplicate themselves to remain stable. Therefore, ski jumping would be improved by having two people on skis. From a promising beginning, “Ski Jumping Pairs” gets bogged down in endless, dull CGI animation—Mashima concentrated on this part of the film, while Kobayashi directed the live action—and jokes that aim for Monty Python but fall flat. “Ski Jumping Pairs” feels like an overextended “Saturday Night Live” sketch.

Stylish and handsomely shot but empty, Korean director Kim Ji-won’s “A Bittersweet Life” makes one nostalgic for the far more accomplished bullet ballets John Woo used to make. It focuses on Sun-woo (Lee Byung-Heon), a young man who works for an older gangster in a hotel. Sun-woo’s boss calls him to observe his girlfriend—if she’s cheating on him, Sun-woo should feel free to kill her. His subsequent moment of mercy costs him greatly.

Revenge has become the world cinema topic du jour, and “A Bittersweet Life” doesn’t have much new to say about it. Despite a plethora of movie references, it doesn’t quite work as a parody of the action film. Kim seems torn between finding violence exciting and horrifying, but he doesn’t make anything productive out of this tension. Instead, he settles for a lengthy series of brutal set pieces.

At its most interesting, the film explores Sun-woo’s near-masochistic vulnerabil­ity—he’s stabbed, tortured, and buried alive but manages to kick ass despite severe wounds—but its opening and closing grasps at Zen parable are hollow and any character development falls by the wayside quickly. Alas, Kim’s only real interest is staging gunplay creatively.

The directorial debut of veteran cinematographer Gu Changwei, “Peacock” recalls the early work of Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien both in its style—like him, Gu prefers long shots to close-ups—and approach to storytelling. Set in the immediate aftermath of China’s Cultural Revolution and taking place over seven years, it centers on the Gao family. Returning several times to the image of the clan eating on their balcony, it devotes itself to the lives of each of their three children—dreamy daughter Weihong (Zhang Jingchu), the mentally challenged and obese Weiguo (Li Feng), and Weiqiang (Lu Yulai), who narrates the film.

Despite the setting, there’s no political agenda to the film, just a careful devotion to the small accumulation of life’s details. In clumsier hands, the story could’ve become a soap opera, but Gu’s sensibility is too elliptical to allow that. The slow pace and 142-minute running time allow the spectator to feel like one is partaking in the family’s lives as they happen. Despite a melancholy tone and a high level of casual cruelty—much of it coming from the Gao siblings’ parents—it never sinks into miserabilism. Although powerful, the ending feels a bit arbitrary and rushed; I wouldn’t have minded if “Peacock” continued another half hour.

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Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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