As the New York Asian Film Festival enters its 13th year, interest in individual Asian films — such as Wong Kar-wai’s “The Grandmaster,” which was 2013’s highest-grossing foreign film — remains strong, but the sense that there’s a New Wave beyond it all seems to be dissipating. In the ‘80s, mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan all created exciting cinema, more or less at the same time. When these waves wore out, South Korea and (to a lesser extent) Thailand picked up the slack. Now major filmmakers remain from those countries, some of whom are represented in this year’s festival. But they and their Japanese counterparts, like Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Takashi Miike, and Sion Sono, have never found an audience in the US beyond a small cult. The New York Asian Film Festival plays to an enthusiastic audience, one younger and more racially diverse than the retirees who attend much of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s year-round programming. They used to feel like the tip of the iceberg; now, I wonder if they represent most of the audience for Asian cinema in New York. This year’s festival includes a number of special programs and retrospectives, including a focus on Hong Kong cinema, “Hong Kong Forever!,” a tribute to Hong Kong producer Sir Run Run Shaw, and a series on Korean actor Lee Jung-jae. One of the festival’s few LGBT-themed films, 1998’s “Portland Street Blues” (Jun. 28, 3:15 p.m.; Walter Reade) plays as part of a tribute to its star, Sandra Ng; the movie focuses on a lesbian pimp.
Anna Broinowski’s “Aim High in Creation!” (Jul. 10, 8:15 p.m.; Walter Reade) is an outlier in this festival. A slick-looking Australian documentary, it chronicles its director’s attempts to use North Korean propaganda methods to fight fracking in Sydney. To learn from the North Korean film industry, she travels to the country and participates as an actress in a film shoot with a director she describes as “North Korea’s Oliver Stone.” There’s a great deal of fascinating material in “Aim High in Creation!,” both in North Korea and Australia — the details of life inside North Korea’s film world, which seems to offer its participants a privileged existence denied ordinary North Koreans, and an interview with a farmer whose family’s health has been ruined by fracking. Yet I wonder if the director ever thought that linking the anti-fracking movement to North Korean communism might actually hurt the former. At times, she seems extremely respectful to North Koreans; at others, she romanticizes their isolation (“no reality TV,” she gushes) and unconsciously condescends to them. Her film is no low-budget production. It appears glossy from the start, with text on-screen and movie images juxtaposed onto paintings, and the anti-fracking short she eventually makes is both stirring and cheesy. Yet “Aim High in Creation!” covers fairly familiar ground, from films like Jim Finn’s “The Juche Idea” and Mads Brugger’s “The Red Chapel” to the episode of Vice magazine’s HBO show that sent Dennis Rodman to North Korea. Due to its very isolation, the country has become a source of fascination for Westerners. “Aim High in Creation!” obviously means well but comes across as a wallow in the last available source of socialist realist kitsch.
Rape is a frequent subject in Korean cinema, sometimes dealt with problematically (as in Kim Ki-duk’s “Pietà,” which combines it with incest). Lee Joon-ik’s “Hope” (Jul. 8, 6 p.m.; Walter Reade) depicts the aftermath of sexual assault on an eight-year-old girl. (The film takes its title from her name.) While it keeps threatening to become horribly maudlin, the film never actually does. Lee’s approach recalls a more melodramatic version of Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s style. Like Kore-eda, he’s a skilled director of child actors; in the title role, Lee Re delivers a remarkably restrained performance in a difficult part. She was seven at the time of filming. The cinematography is milky and pale, making bright colors stand out. I can’t deny that “Hope” also has a touch of the Lifetime Original Movie to it as well — mostly stemming from the more extroverted performances of the actors playing Hope’s parents — but it brings a sense of gravity to a situation that’s often either treated exploitatively or used for cheap uplift. The coda comes dangerously close to the latter, but it doesn’t ruin the power of the two hours that came before it, especially the film’s anger at lenient sentences given to rapists.
Chinese director Fei Xing’s “Silent Witness” (Jul. 6, 9:15 p.m.; Walter Reade) is a handsome-looking production, with attractive, often saturated cinematography and elegant circular or horizontal pans around its characters. Yet I can’t shake the feeling that it’s just a Chinese variation on a familiar brand of courtroom drama — Sidney Lumet might have done a better job with it than Fei does. The film opens at the trial of a young woman accused of the murder of her rich father’s girlfriend and gets busier from there. The narrative is full of twists, reminiscent of a particularly complicated mystery novel. Some of the film’s devices — flashbacks, shifting perspective from one character to another -—seem designed to paper over the fact that about a third of it takes place inside a courtroom. “Silent Witness” alternates between an aspirational fascination with wealth and a sense of the rich as corrupt. As the program notes point out, its underlying values, such as familial self-sacrifice, are thoroughly Chinese. For better or worse, its faith in the goodness of human nature is something you’re unlikely to find in American cinema.
Hong Kong director Matt Chow’s “Golden Chickensss” (sic) (Jun. 27, 8:30 p.m., Jul. 1, 4 p.m.; Walter Reade) offers up much the same mix of gross-out and sentiment as the Farrelly brothers’ best films. It opens with a history of prostitution in China — and serves as a follow-up to two earlier films starring Sandra Ng as a hooker — but a realistic depiction of sex work is the last thing Chow has on his mind. For its first half, “Golden Chickensss” is a goofy comedy, showing Madame Kam (Ng) and her stable of prostitutes running a successful business via cell phones, traveling to Japan to learn about fellatio from a gay hustler, master the art of the “20-second grope,” and fool a dying woman into thinking that she’s slept with actor Louis Koo (he plays his own impersonator). There are lots of Hong Kong film industry in-jokes, including a reference to “The Grandmaster” and cameos from the island’s stars. But halfway through, the film turns more melancholy; Kam remains the ultimate “hooker with a heart of gold,” but she guides a middle-aged gangster through a changing city where street fights can end up on YouTube. The jokes eventually add up to something. “Golden Chickensss” plays like a love letter to the golden days of Hong Kong cinema, vomit jokes and all. This is not for the easily offended, but it’s a lot warmer than it initially appears.
13TH NEW YORK ASIAN FILM FESTIVAL | June 27-July 14 | Walter Reade Theater | 165 W. 65th St. | Japan Society | 333 E. 47th St. | Asia Society | 725 Park Ave. at 70th St. | filmlinc.com or facebook.com/NYAFF