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 continue today with our third roundup. Our other roundups can be found HERE, HERE, and HERE.
Chinese genre films have always been dominated by a conservative streak which largely set them apart from their American and Japanese counterparts. Westerns, chanbara, and other such genres entered revisionist periods where they became highly critical of the cultures that created them. But Chinese genres like heroic bloodshed and wuxia only became increasingly aggressive in their veneration of traditional Chinese culture and society—trends which the Communist Chinese government were only too happy to embrace and encourage. Even by these standards, Guan Hu’s Mr. Six (2015) borders on the reactionary. The eponymous hero is a graying, middle-aged ex-street punk. Respected and venerated by everyone around him, he has the clout to intercede and interfere with police affairs. He perpetually growls about bad manners and the Good Old Days© when people had Respect™ and Honor™. After collapsing several times, he gets taken to the hospital where doctors tell him that he has three obstructed arteries and needs immediate bypass surgery. He responds by belittling “Western medicine,” escaping from the hospital, and somehow not dying of heart failure. When a street gang—a term which in a modern Chinese context means a roving group of spoiled teens and twentysomethings with rich or politically well-connected parents—kidnaps his son after he scratches one of their Ferrari’s, his initial reaction isn’t to rescue him with guns blazing. He does what he believes is the honorable thing to do: he sets out to collect enough money to pay for the damages. But when the drop-off goes wrong and Mr. Six accidentally ends up with a series of documents which could criminally indict their families, the street gang comes for blood. It all leads toward a swelling finale where Mr. Six and his reassembled gang literally do battle in the middle of a frozen lake against the kidnappers and their crew. The metaphors are impossible to miss: traditional Chinese society against the forces of amoral capitalism, the wisdom and propriety of elders against uncivilized youth, the inherent rightness of the Old Ways against the New. Mr. Six only manages to avoid becoming a parody of its own dogmatism thanks to expert character development. Hu and actor Feng Xiaogang transform Mr. Six into a creature capable of making and admitting to mistakes, feeling and expressing sincere emotion. In my opinion, the major climax of the film doesn’t take place on the frozen lake at the end but earlier in a cramped restaurant where Mr. Six and his estranged, resentful son finally bond and communicate. By exploring Mr. Six’s shortcomings as a loving father, by showing that he has room to grow and develop as a human being, he assumes a third dimension—and so, therefore, does the film’s central conflict.
Park Hong-min’s Alone isn’t just the most difficult film I’ve seen at the NYAFF, it’s shaping up to be the most difficult film I’ve seen this whole year. I’ve encountered many other films that reveled in their own esotericism, but they all had the decency to frame themselves with the skeletons of traditional genre pictures: Kyle Broom’s Tabloid Vivant (2016) was a horror film, Sophia Takal’s Always Shine (2016) a thriller, Ryan David’s Seattle Road (2015) a romantic melodrama. But Alone unspools like a fevered free-form jazz session. It begins like an enigmatic thriller—think Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad (1961) meets Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2000). After witnessing the savage murder of a young woman, photographer Su-min (Lee Ju-won) gets attacked by a group of masked thugs. He awakens naked in an abandoned alleyway in the heart of the slum he had been documenting for a project. As he wanders through the streets he meets several strange figures: a crying young woman and a frightened young boy holding a butcher knife. When he returns to his apartment he finds a headless dead body at his desk. And the next thing he knows he awakens again wearing a bloodied sweatshirt, somewhere else in the neighborhood. We watch as Su-min navigates a surreal Möbius strip, passing out and reawakening over and over again in different parts of the slum. Hong-ming wisely captures the majority of the film with long takes, highlighting Su-min’s sense of spatial disorientation. Sometimes he’ll walk down an alley and the camera will pan left or right. Suddenly he’ll appear on a completely different street-corner as if he somehow teleported there. But as the intrigue builds and he begins to interact with the young woman and the young boy, the film morphs into a self-reflexive psychological study. During one long fourth-wall-breaking segment, Su-min walks out of the blocked area of a shot to stand next to the massive set lights and deliver a lengthy monologue. It ends with him demanding the director to respond to his statements. The film continues with seemingly unrelated vignettes exploring his relationships with his girlfriend, his suicidal mother, and the soon-to-be-gentrified slums where he keeps waking up. The film ends with no explanation for Su-min’s experiences. Was he murdered? Has he awakened in a kind of Buddhist purgatory where the movie camera becomes the tool of his punishment, forcing him to relive bizarre re-imaginings of his sins? I’m not sure. Alone wasn’t meant to be taken in just one sitting. But that one screening was enough to convince me that I was watching something brilliant, unusual, and singular.
An important social message is at the heart of E J’yong’s The Bacchus Lady. The protagonist is an elderly prostitute named Youn So-young (Youn Yuh-jung)—note the deliberate English pun in her family name—who propositions clients by offering them Bacchus energy drinks in public parks. Youn is based on the real-life phenomenon of elderly South Korean women selling themselves in the parks surrounding Seoul. Despite being a global economic superpower, South Korea has no effective welfare system for its elderly. Without jobs or families to provide for them, many spiral into desperate poverty. The current rate of elderly poverty in South Korea is a staggering 45.1%, a statistic which rises to 76.6% for single women. So, So-young’s story offers a fascinating glimpse into a highly marginalized segment of society. What I found truly interesting was the film’s depiction of an ethnically diverse Korea. All too often Korea presents itself within its own cinema as racially homogeneous, a sin it shares with most other East and Southeast Asian film industries. The Bacchus Lady however surrounds itself with racial Others: So-young’s transsexual neighbor shares a bed with a “Korean-Japanese yakuza”, African Koreans populate local shops and street corners, American soldiers crowd restaurants, Chinese Buddhist temples occupy august locations in city centers. So-young spends much of the film babysitting a Filipino child after he gets separated from his mother at a hospital, even taking him along with her to motels where she meets with customers. This Korea is one seeking identity and direction, a preoccupation matched by the film’s decentralized narrative. The film presents itself as a series of vignettes in So-young’s life. We see her visit doctors and pharmacists for gonorrhea treatment and the “adjustments” she must make to her “services” during her recovery. We see chance meetings with old friends, aborted pick-ups (“What are you, a hooker?”), and fights with fellow prostitutes. She dodges police raids, visits favorite customers in the hospital, struggles to determine whether the Filipino boy wants ketchup or mayonnaise with his dinner potatoes. J’yong doesn’t try to tell a story so much as he tries to construct a reality that just happens to center on a single woman. Eventually the forces of tragedy compound. She commits several acts of violent mercy—do yourself a favor and don’t look up the literal translation of the original Korean title—which necessitate her martyrdom. But the eventual climax feels earned instead of maudlin; necessary instead of obligatory.