For our final round up of the 2016 New York Asian Film Festival, we look at four last films from Taiwan, China, and Japan. Our other round-ups of this year’s festival can be found HERE.
THE TENANTS DOWNSTAIRS (2016)
The first tenant was Wang, a gloomy, sad sack divorcee who lives with his fourth-grade daughter. Then came Guo Li and Linghu, a gay couple who escape lives of repression in the sanctuary of their bedroom. Next was Boyan, a young twentysomething who spends half his time playing video games and the other half trying to practice magic. Then Miss Chen, an office worker who beds a different sugar daddy every night, then Mr Chang, a high school gym teacher and compulsive weight-lifter, then Yingru, a mysterious woman dressed in white with a room full of candles and suitcases. All of them fall under the voyeuristic eye of their landlord, an enigmatic, deranged fellow who watches them all day (every day) through hidden cameras placed in each of their rooms. He is a god, at least in his mind. By the end of the film he will have hurt, twisted, traumatized, and manipulated each of them against each other for his own amusement. Such is the plot of Adam Tsuei’s The Tenants Downstairs; a morbid, thoroughly repulsive exploration of human misery reminiscent of late 80s, early 90s Category III films in Hong Kong. There’s a certain fascination to be had watching the landlord concoct his impossible schemes to ruin his tenants. He destroys Boyan’s life by repeatedly drugging him, stripping him naked, then placing him somewhere about the tenant or its environment. Before long, Boyan believes that he can teleport in his sleep. But his enthusiasm towards his newfound powers wane after he wakes up one morning tied to Guo Li and Linghu’s bed after being sodomized with a jagged dildo in his sleep.
The Tenants Downstairs is not a pleasant film; it’s not supposed to be. It revels in depravity and misanthropy. There is more than enough nudity and graphic sex for it to qualify as a softcore porno, but I doubt anyone will be able to get their rocks off to it after watching a little girl get tied up and assaulted? Or a man get his mouth sewed shut before being slowly roasted and sliced to death in a bathtub? Or a weeping lover carving their beloved into pieces with a hacksaw? I left the film wondering what it was trying to accomplish, what it was trying to say. Eli Morgan Gesner’s tremendous Condemned—one of my picks for the eleven best films of 2015—came to mind. It was horrific, disgusting, and easily graphic, but it felt like an appreciative celebration of the extravagances and absurdities of the splatter genre. I left that film feeling like I had watched a labor of love. But there’s no love in The Tenants Downstairs. There’s just pain and hatred. There’s no deeper meaning to it; it’s obscene titillation for the sake of obscene titillation. I can’t say it’s a bad film; it’s too well written and plotted (despite featuring a twist ending that went completely over my head) for me to dismiss it as trash. But I can’t and won’t recommend it. There are other, better films to come out of the NYAFF this year that could use the attention more.
SAVING MR. WU (2015)
The most fascinating parts of Ding Sheng’s kidnapping thriller Saving Mr. Wu have the least to do with the actual kidnapping, the ensuing police investigation, or the nail-biting rescue operation. Instead, they focus on the tenuous relationship between fictional media and reality. Based on the real-life story of the kidnapping of actor Wu Ruofu—who actually stars as the police captain in charge of the case—the main victim is a Hong Kong movie star named Mr. Wu. After being abducted by a group of criminals posing as police officers, he gets chained in an abandoned building with another kidnapping victim named Xiao Dou. There are several conversations where the criminals chat about Mr. Wu’s celebrity status. Have you ever played a kidnapping victim before? No, but I’ve played a cop. Hong Kong cop or Mainland cop? Mainland cop. All of it comes to a head in the last act when Mr. Wu and Xiao learn that the ringleader of the kidnappers, the crazed Zhang Hua, plans on killing them after their ransom money has been collected. Xiao breaks down into hysterical tears. But Mr. Wu starts comforting him. Have you seen my comedies? He pulls a weird face and starts acting silly. Have you heard my music? He begins to sing a ballad. Soon Xiao starts to sing along. By the end he has regained his composure. It’s a heart-warming scene that reminded me of the climax of Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels (1942) where the eponymous Hollywood director wrongfully imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit watches cartoons in a church with his fellow convicts. He realizes in that moment that the ability to entertain, the ability to make people laugh is one of the noblest gifts available to mankind. There are other self-reflexive moments that meditate on Mr. Wu’s fame, the least of which being a perfunctory conversation near the end where one of his rescuers ask him if his ordeal was anything like the movies he’s starred in. Of course not, he monotones. Those were movies, this is real life.
But even if you strip aside this subtext, Saving Mr. Wu is an expertly crafted thriller. Wang Qianyuan steals the show as the psychotic Zhang, smirking as he torments and tortures his victims, laughing in the face of police interrogation. The editing can occasionally be a bit jarring; the film rarely allows any breathing room for cuts between scenes with the kidnapped victims and the police. Often the cuts come mid-conversation, creating a disorienting effect where it seems like geographically isolated characters who have never met seem to be talking to each other. But for a film where the audience already knows the ending, Saving Mr. Wu manages to satisfy and excite.
WHAT’S IN THE DARKNESS (2015)
I can appreciate what Wang Yichun’s What’s in the Darkness tried to accomplish. Unfortunately, its execution left much to be desired. Set against the backdrop of early 90s, Deng Xiaoping era China, the film juxtaposes the investigation of a serial killer in a rural village with a young girl’s pubescent sexual awakening. Someone has been raping, murdering, and slashing crude crosses on the thighs of local women before unceremoniously dumping them in empty fields. The community is shocked, but seems preoccupied with other concerns. To these gruesome sights a young girl named Jing seems mysteriously drawn. Silent and painfully awkward, she’s so reserved that when she receives a school-wide award for academic excellence and community service, her own teacher and parents are astonished. For a young girl on the cusp of womanhood, she’s naive to the point of idiocy. She spends her free-time pretending to be a pop-star, singing saccharine ballads about love on the top of broken-down vehicles in a junkyard. Her only friend is a local troublemaker repeating their grade for the umpteenth time. Cruel and manipulative, she forces her wannabe-gangster boyfriend to intimidate and rough up classmates who bully her. She’s the polar opposite of Jing, but the two are inseparable. Jing’s mother is an abusive harpy who routinely humiliates and mocks her, shaming her with stories of how she suffered during the Great Chinese Famine that killed tens of millions. Jing’s father is a local policeman assigned to the task force investigating the murders, but his significant forensic training goes largely ignored by his peers who resent him for his college education. So he goes home in the afternoons and vents his frustrations on Jing, who in turn becomes more and more withdrawn and detached.
The metaphors here aren’t difficult to figure out. The murders are a kind of psychical manifestation of the era’s turbulence. Jing’s father represents the encroachment of scientific rationalism while his co-workers represent the superstitions and willful ignorance of the masses. Meanwhile, Jing’s confusion and eventual menarche mimic China’s economic growing pains and the nation’s general sense of misdirection. My problem is that What’s in the Darkness never manages to make any of this material compelling. Its lazy, languid tone ill-suits its gruesome material. The metaphors are clever, but Yichun never seems to explore beyond their basic surface implications. The film, with its abrupt, anti-climactic ending, feels unfinished. Even if Yichun’s point was to meditate on the absurdity of the era, he failed to inspire anything other than bored apathy.
A BRIDE FOR RIP VAN WINKLE (2016)
[Mild Spoilers Ahead]
You never can tell where Shunji Iwai’s movies are going to go. Iwai usually focuses on a small handful of characters, letting the mood and genre of his films morph and evolve naturally as they make their way through their lives. His masterpiece Swallowtail Butterfly (1996) followed an unnamed orphan as she and a tight group of confederates navigated a futuristic, alternate universe Japan, the narrative jumping from sci-fi to yakuza thriller to coming-of-age drama. His 2001 film All About Lily Chou-Chou, a cause célèbre among many Western online message boards, watched a quartet of teenagers grow up with such a decentralized gaze that it mimicked the rhythms of life and adolescence itself. Now we come to his latest film, A Bride for Rip Van Winkle. Even by Iwai’s standards, the film is, to borrow a phrase from Henry James, a loose, baggy monster. Clocking in at almost three hours, it seems closer to the works of Hirokazu Kore-eda than it does one of the preeminent Japanese hit-makers of the 90s and early 00s. The central figure is Nanami, a part-time teacher so soft-spoken and shy that her students mock her with gift microphones. She meets a young man in a chatroom and they quickly marry. Having so few friends, she turns to a “fixer”—an actor named Amuro who specializes in wrangling performers to pretend to be friends and relatives at weddings and funerals. The wedding goes well but their domestic life soon collapses when Nanami gets fired from her teaching position for her “weak voice” and framed by the same acting company for adultery. Freshly divorced, she seeks to start a new life, eventually joining Amuro’s company and beginning a friendship with fellow actress and a porn star who goes by the chatroom nickname “Rip Van Winkle.”
All of this takes place within the first hour of the film. From there the film just dissipates and dissolves, losing all direction and purpose. Gone is the cinematic joie de vivre that propelled his other work. Gone is the aesthetic daring that morphed his earlier movies into calculated provocations. For the first time at an Iwai film I felt so unmoved and unaffected by what I saw onscreen that I was left wondering about plot holes. We never did get a definite explanation for who framed Nanami for adultery, did we? We learn late in the film that Rip Van Winkle is dying of breast cancer. But for a popular porn star, how did only one of her co-stars discover that she had breast lumps? I know porn can be a sleazy industry, but you’d think that the industry would stop one of their biggest stars from performing after repeatedly passing out from pain and exhaustion before, during, and after shoots. I’m told that the version of the film that was presented at this year’s NYAFF was the director’s cut. Apparently it runs a full hour longer than the version currently being shown in Asian cinemas. I believe it. A Bride for Rip Van Winkle is woefully, fatally indulgent.