BY STEVE ERICKSON | In the early ‘90s, there were two Chinatown theaters that offered double bills of the latest films from Hong Kong. While one had to put up with their lax enforcement of smoking regulations, I have fond memories of seeing John Woo’s “Hard Boiled” and Wong Kar-wai’s “Ashes of Time” there, months or even years before they made it north of Houston Street. After these theaters went under, Chinatown was a haven for DVD imports for a while, but now those days are gone as well.
However, distributors like Well Go and China Lion still release new Asian films in New York, but they seem to have little idea how to market them, typically dumping them in the AMC Empire 25 for a week-long run. Unless you closely follow the roster of 20 films that generally open each week in New York, the New York Asian Film Festival may be your last chance to see some of Asia’s best cinema, even the portion with US distribution.
This year’s festival is loaded with sidebars. Most tantalizing is the opportunity to see several films by Japanese cult director Kinji Fukasaku on the big screen, as part of the dual tribute to actors Ken Takakura and Bunta Sugawara, both of whom passed away last November. There are special sections devoted to new films from Japan and Taiwan, and South Korean female directors and producers get their due. Two films by Hong Kong director Ringo Lam are being revived, including the classic “City on Fire” (June 27, 8:30 p.m.) from which Quentin Tarantino lifted much of the narrative of “Reservoir Dogs.” As always, it’s hard to do justice to such a festival based on the small fraction of its films I saw.
In its native South Korea, “My Love, Don’t Cross That River” (June 28, 9:15 p.m.) was a huge hit. That’s not surprising; despite being an independently made documentary, it’s no more challenging than a Ron Howard film. Director Jin Mo-Young tells the story of an elderly couple — the man is 98, the woman 89 — who have been married for more than 70 years. In fact, they met as teenagers and have been devoted to each other since. They’re so passionate that they declare their love for each other every 30 seconds, putting dandelions in their hair and playing in the snow.
If this were a fictional story, I could picture Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda making something fresh from it. Jin gives in all too easily to sentimentality. I’m glad that this couple have maintained their love over such a long stretch, but their ways of expressing it are more than a little saccharine. The film threatens to show a little edge when the man becomes terminally ill, but then it just becomes faintly exploitative: there’s nothing particularly edifying about seeing a sick old man have a coughing fit. The trajectory of “My Love, Don’t Cross That River” ensures that it’s moving, but in a better film the tears wouldn’t be an automatic product of the subject matter.
Korean director Hong Seok-jae’s “Socialphobia” (July 4, 4:15 p.m.) bears some resemblance to the excellent American horror film “Unfriended,” which was released earlier this year. Both films deal with cyberbullying and attempt to find creative ways to represent computer text cinematically, although “Unfriended” manages it better. In the wake of a soldier’s death, a female Internet troll named Min runs wild on Twitter, insulting him left and right. When four male students decide to pay her a visit and exact some kind of revenge, they meet up with Mr. Babble, the host of a popular online show, and his friends at an Internet café. But when they get to Min’s apartment, they discover that she has apparently hung herself. Several of the kids believe she was really murdered and launch an investigation.
Despite the hip trappings, “Socialphobia” is a boys’ adventure story at heart, particularly in its middle third. The story is full of the twists and turns that usually come with mysteries, but it ends by rejecting such gimmicks as explanations. Like “Unfriended,” it’s concerned with the Internet’s potential to unleash hatred by enabling bullies to stalk their victims anonymously or carry out other forms of mischief, but this theme is really only expressed at the beginning and end. Still, Mr. Babble’s appearances at those two points in the story are chilling. Unlike the usual exercises in technophobia, “Socialphobia” seems to have been written and directed by people who know how social media work.
Malaysian director Namewee’s “Banglasia” (July 10, 8 p.m.) has been banned in his home country, which should spark interest at the New York Asian Film Festival. After seeing the film, I’m perplexed why this well-intentioned anti-racist statement ticked off the Malaysian government. To be sure, its politics are expressed in a style closer to the Farrelly brothers than Stanley Kramer. It starts off with a Bangladeshi worker (Nirab Hossain) discovering that his fiancée is being forced by her family to marry another man. He has two days to travel back to Bangladesh and resolve the situation, but his passport is being kept by his boss. Meanwhile, a racist wearing a “Save Malaysia” vest and T-shirt (played by the director, who’s also a rapper) holds sparsely attended soapbox rants about the evils of Bangladeshi immigrants. The two men — in a surreal pairing derived from spaghetti Westerns — go on the run, with the Bangladeshi turning into “Dirty Harris.”
“Banglasia” is witty, but also a bit wearying. The pacing is a non-stop race for 90 minutes. Visually, it mixes a vivid, stylized sense of color with occasional switches to black-and-white. Unfortunately, Namewee’s sense of humor includes a few gay panic jokes. Although there’s a fair amount of violence, the film’s basically benign nature is never in doubt. Through the well-worn device of the buddy film, it shows a racist learning the error of his ways. If this is what threatens the Malaysian government, the country’s in real trouble.
14TH NEW YORK ASIAN FILM FESTIVAL | June 26-Jul. 11 | Film Society of Lincoln Center (through Jul. 8), 165 W. 65th St. | $14; $11 for students & seniors at filmlinc.com | School of Visual Arts (from Jul. 9), 333 W. 23rd St. | $14 at subwaycinema.com, which also has complete festival information