This year TheYoungFolks is proud to cover the New York Asian Film Festival (NYAFF) which seeks to spotlight contemporary and recent Asian filmmaking. Additional information, screening schedules, and contact information for the festival can be found HERE. We begin today with our first roundup of movies.
At first you think Yue Song’s The Bodyguard is a good-natured parody of martial arts films. We first meet its hero, the mullet-haired Wu Lin, getting urinated on by a chubby child as he does splits in a city square. When asked by his estranged brother how their martial arts master is doing, he pulls out his ashes and plops it down on the table before him seemingly out of hammerspace. Once hired by a wealthy businessman to act as a bodyguard for his spoiled daughter Faye Li, the film devotes many sequences to their bizarre shenanigans. In one scene he sits back and watches with amusement as she gets chased up and down a staircase in fast-motion by a group of thugs she tried—and failed—to incriminate against him. In another, he flummoxed a prostitute hired to seduce him with a “strategically placed” scroll holder that sends her running and screaming from his room.
The montage of Wu and Faye falling in love seems deliberately absurd and over-the-top-what else explains the soapy sequence where they drive a red sports car on the beach? But after the first third a terrible realization hits: Song is playing all of this straight. The last hour is a woefully serious drama where Faye gets kidnapped and Wu must rescue her. We’re even treated to a scene where Wu gets beaten to a pulp by henchman and buried in the mud only for him to dig his way back out like he was the Bride from Kill Bill. He even gives a proper Andy Dufresne victory scream as a thunderstorm rages around him. The film collapses into a miasma of clichés and unearned dourness. Some of the fight scenes and stunts are excellent, if a bit too frantically edited. During an early chase scene where Faye gets snatched by a group of kidnappers disguised as waiters, Wu kicks his way through the front windshield of their van as they drive down a freeway. It’s a moment worthy of Jackie Chan. One moment near the end where Wu runs in a circle smashing the shins of a group of henchmen surrounding him, like Neo in the Agent Smith fight scene in The Matrix Reloaded (2003), gave me false hope that the film was regaining some of its levity. But alas, the film cannot overcome its identity crisis.
The key scene of Jang Jae-hyun’s exceptional The Priests arrives nearly two-thirds of the way through where two Catholic exorcists—the disillusioned, world-weary Father Kim (Kim Yoon-seok) and fresh-from-the-seminary newcomer Deacon Choi (Kang Dong-won)—arrive at a cramped building at the heart of the city to cast out a demon from a high school girl. They discover a traditional Korean shaman already carrying out his own exorcism with several assistants. When their attempt fails, the shaman disrobes and casually talks shop with Father Kim. They talk about his daughter, how she was born to follow in her father’s footsteps as a shaman, and how unfortunate it is that Father Kim was assigned such an inexperienced assistant. These are two friends united in a common cause; neither question the potency or validity of the other’s methods. Such fraternization of faiths may seem unthinkable in the West, but it makes perfect sense in the highly syncretic world of Northeast Asia.
Here is part of what makes The Priests so fascinating and important: it’s a Korean interpretation of a traditionally Western genre. There’s an obsession with the minutiae of the exorcism process I’ve never encountered in Western exorcist films—the demonology, the preparations, the evocations, the commands of release. The opening credits even define the Catholic Church’s views on demons, demonic possessions, exorcisms, and exorcists for Korean audiences. But much of the film’s strength comes from its masterful control of mood and tempo. The first 30-40 minutes are rather contemplative as they introduce the major characters and set the stage for what follows.
Comparisons to The Exorcist (1973) are inevitable: the main character is a young priest with a tenuous confidence in his own faith, the ending sees the same young priest have to confront the possessing demon one-on-one, and so forth. While The Exorcist took pleasure in confounding its audience with the possibility that there might be a logical, scientific explanation for the central possession—at least until the pea-soup spewing, head-revolving final chapters, there is never any doubt that demons are real in The Priests.The Exorcist divided up its screen-time relatively fairly between the priests and the possessed, the young victim in Jae-hyun’s gets only about 15-20 minutes of screen-time. As the title suggests, this is a film about a process and its practitioners.