Wednesday, June 29, 2005

3 Movies at the Asian Film Festival

The New York Asian Film Festival is probably my favorite film festival. The folks at Subway Cinema do a pretty good job at running a hassle-free festival, that is, it's hassle-free for the audience, at least. The movies on the program tend to include a nice mix of art house fare, fanboy-geeky stuff, and genuinely popular, crowd-pleasing flicks. The downside is that not all the movies are going to appeal to everyone and it helps to do a little research before buying your tickets. For example, this movie about the friendship between two teenage girls is a lot different from this movie about the friendship between two teenage girls.

I skipped all of last week's screenings, which were held down at the Anthology Film Archives on East 2nd Street, but so far this week I've seen three movies at the ImaginAsian theater on E 59th Street (which is a little easier for me to get to) and I'll probably see a few more before the festival ends.

As usual, I liked only one out of the three movies I saw, but .333 is a pretty good average for a film festival. What's not so usual is that the film I did like, I liked a hell of a lot: in fact, it's probably my second favorite movie of the year, after Carrol Ballard's Duma which I saw at the Tribeca film festival earlier in the year, and should really get around to blogging about. Other than Duma, it's the only movie that's on my tentative "year end favorite list" so far in 2005.

Anyway, here's the films I saw, starting with the ones I didn't like so much:

R-Point is a Korean horror/war picture. It's set during the Vietnam War and has a message about how it's a bad idea to go to war in foreign countries. (I didn't know that the South Koreans had troops fighting in Vietnam with the US until I read the movie's description on the Film Festival website). Actually, this is a pretty good concept, but the execution left me severely underwhelmed. I probably would have walked out, but I was sitting in the middle of a row, and I didn't want to disturb my neighbors. Instead, I spent the time brainstorming the NASCAR/IRL essay I posted this morning.

The movie's main problem is that it was never really scary. And because it basically flat out states its theme and premise, there's no excitement or discovery for the audience as we work out the symbolism. Almost any "straight" Vietnam movie has more genuine horror.

Kekexili: Mountain Patrol is very well made, but it really wasn't my cup of tea. It is one of those movies that tells a true story by dramatizing a journalist's efforts to tell the story. In this case, the movie follows a reporter from Beijing who has gone up into the Tibetan wilderness to report on a Tibetan militia group that has formed in order to stop poachers from driving the Tibetan antelope to extinction. Most of the militia members end up dying (of various causes) during their anti-poacher expedition.

I had a major problem with the movie:

The movie is really too intense to be boring--the scenes in the second half of the movie make up a fairly gripping catalog of the different ways you can die in the Tibetan highlands--but it is monotonous, in the strictest sense. Each scene is pitched at exactly the same level, each shot is composed in almost exactly the same way, the tone never really budges for an instant.

But because the filmmakers use a kind of distanced, objective style, most of the human dimensions of the story are incomprehensible. For example, we never find out why the reporter--the movie's central character--is drawn to tell this story. Nor do we find out what has motivated the militia members to take up arms against the poachers. In fact, the poachers--who are in it for the money--have the only understandable motivations of anyone in the movie, even though they're kind of the bad guys.

The filmmakers are also weirdly ambivalent about some of the actions the militia takes. For example, the militia members shoot one poacher outright and send another group on foot through the wilderness--presumably to their death. Also, the militia raises some of its money by selling the antelope pelts that they confiscated from the poachers. I think we're meant to see these scenes as examples of the lengths the militia will go to in order to stop the poachers, but it makes it seem like we're watching one group of criminals going after another. Actually, that might be a pretty good way to sum up a lot of "law enforcement" in the "developing" world.

This movie won China's version of the Academy Award for Best Picture, and I can kind of see why--it deals with a serious subject and is filmed in a serious style--but it never really starts to work on a human/moral level. I left the film wondering if it was really worth all those human lives in order to save the antelope, but the filmmakers never really address this issue, which seems to be staring them in the face.

Hana and Alice is not a great movie. But I think it's a very, very good one. As I already hinted, this is my second favorite movie of the year. It's one of the kinds of movie I like best but don't get enough of anymore: a meandering, episodic movie with a really soft touch. It's kind of like a light comic version of The Makioka Sisters.

Hana and Alice is about the ups and downs of a friendship between two high-school girls in present-day Japan. The two main characters don't really have any big, dramatic moments of self-discovery like the characters in Ghost World or Sideways and the movie never really adds up to being more than the sum of its parts--the scenes don't build on each other as much as they bounce off each other--but those parts are pretty damn good. Just about ever sequence in the movie is exquisitely made. More impressively, each sequence is slightly different in tone and mood (although the style generally stays the same) which keeps things pretty lively and almost makes up for the lack of a strong, dramatic throughline. Ideally the movie should have been about 15 minutes shorter: the lack of any build-up or pay-off wouldn't have mattered as much.

In my favorite scene in the movie, Alice spends the afternoon with an older man, who we quickly figure out must be her father--her parents are divorced and, up until this point, we've only seen her somewhat shallow mother. Her father keeps trying to say what he must think are the kinds of things fathers should say to their children, but he's too self-conscious--too unfamiliar with the role--to really bring it off. What makes the scene kind of magical is the way Alice seems to get this and she keeps trying to make it easier for her father, even though she doesn't really seem to know what to do either. It's a touching, sad scene whose tone reminded me of that of Edward Yang's Yi-Yi.

Hana and Alice is playing again at 6:00pm on Saturday, July 2 at the ImaginAsian theater. Check it out if you're in the New York area.

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