This week and next, thousands of movie lovers are flocking to their midsummer mecca on New York City’s Lower East Side. The New York Asian Film Festival, berthed at Anthology Film Archives, is unspooling 27 feature films (and two shorts) from Japan, India, Korea, Thailand and Malaysia. The partisan audiences may locate no masterpieces there, but they will be reminded that attending foreign films need not be a solemn duty. It can be an enthralling pleasure.
Foreign films. Remember them? Graybeards dissolve in a puddle of fond memories as they recall the days, a few decades back, when movies in French, Swedish, Japanese, Italian and a half-dozen other languages set the medium’s standard for excellence. To be cinematically literate "cinemate," to borrow a term Time proposed in a 1963 cover story heralding the first New York Film Festival one had to be able to discuss the hidden narrative meanings and formal innovations of pictures like The Seventh Seal and Last Year at Marienbad. Foreign films had snob appeal and sex appeal. Or they did until American movies, over a few years in the 60s, discovered daring. Audiences were titillated and relieved. They could still feel superior but no longer had to read subtitles.
In the last 15 or 20 years, the few foreign-language films that have made any noise at the U.S. box office were not daring at all. Cinema Paradiso, Like Water for Chocolate, The Postman and their ilk gave viewers the warm fuzzies. They owed more to traditional Hollywood romantic dramas than to the trailblazing experiments of Bergman, Godard and Antonioni. As for the foreign films that critics championed, these tended to be minimalist to the point of inertia: static-camera portraits of glum people doing not very much at all.
Only in East Asia, far from the multiplexes and tastemakers, was there a truly vigorous popular cinema. Hong Kong directors, actors and stunt coordinators were showing how movies could be both wildly vigorous and eye-poppingly artful. The admirers of these films had to search out their treasures in specialty video stores and, for the pure experience, in ratty theaters dotting the Chinatowns of major cities. But that was part of the Hong Kong thrill. Seeing an in-his-prime Jackie Chan action film on Canal Street where the locals chatted and noshed through the movie, and you always propped your feet on the seat in front of you, to keep the rats from breaking your concentration on the martial marvels on the screen had the furtive kick of buying reefers from a zoot-suited dude on 125th Street.
Among these fanciers were the young men who would form the collective known as Subway Cinema. Back around the turn of the millennium, they were just five guys with a dream. They loved Hong Kong action movies and wanted to see more, and share them, especially as the theaters that showed them were shuttering. The last Chinatown movie house in Manhattan, the Music Palace Theatre, went out of business in June 2000. Not only did the U.S. venues for Hong Kong cinema close down; so, pretty much, did Hong Kong cinema. Fewer movies are made in the Special Administration Region, certainly far fewer good ones.
So, like David Chute and other sophisticated fanciers of Hong Kong films, the collective migrated from one old colony of the British Empire to another: India, which produces upwards of a thousand movies a year, and which has a vibrant movie vocabulary every bit exotic as, if less transgressive than, Hong Kong’s. They foraged through other Asian film industries, not as colonizers but explorers, and found colorful native trinkets in countries that rarely saw their films released in stateside theaters. The result of their treks was what they now call the New York Asian Film Festival, or NYAFF which sounds like an Edward G. Robinson negative but is still more respectable than the festival’s original name: Asian Films Are Go!, or AFAG.
The signature films of Subway’s early festivals were spectacularly lurid: Herman Yau’sThe Untold Story from Hong Kong, Takashi Miike’s Visitor Q from Japan. This was the midnight-movie aesthetic run amok, a hazing at the coolest frat house on campus. Inevitably, as they grew older and threw their net wider, the Subway programmers acquired a more mature taste. Should I say, "I’m sorry to say"? Maybe. I miss the regularity of the shock value in their early selections. The last few Asian Film Festivals have been more like real film festivals, with selections that have won best-picture prizes in their home countries, or are meant to stoke an audience’s warmer emotions. Nice movies, which U.S. filmgoers already have enough of, thanks.
Still and all, the Subway Cinema lads haven’t lost their eyes. Even their conventional choices display pinwheeling formal expertise. Simply by being shown on a New York movie screen, these films underline the cinematic stodginess of most American films. Compared to a movie like the Korean Duelist or the Japanese Cromartie High School, the Hollywood product looks pretty paltry.
Actually, my favorite films at this year’s NYAFF were in a sidebar event devoted to the career of Bollywood director-producer Ram Gopal Verma, culminating in the world premiere of his new movie, Shiva. Those films deserve a column of their own, which, Bollywood fans, I’ll get to next month.
I hope you can get to Anthology to soak up the atmosphere of the NYAFF. And if not, go to Subway’s website to savor the blurb-writing skills of Grady Hendrix, the savviest young writer on film I know, east or west. One little pity: there’s not a Hong Kong film in this year’s bundle. But there are plenty worth considering. Let’s check out a few of them.