Lights! Gamera! Action!

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IMAGE COURTESY SHOCHIKU CO., LTD.

The film Pistol Opera is part of the New York Asian Film Festival 2002

Ask a serious American film fan to name a Chinese director and the answer will be Zhang Yimou. Indian? Mira Nair. Korean? Maybe Im Kwok-taek. Contemporary Japanese? Takeshi Kitano or Hirokazu Kore-eda. With the wayward exception of "Beat" Takeshi, who makes slow-fuse movies about tough guys, the directors and films are always from the art-house contingent. These movies have the scent and fragility of crushed flowers; they are on the torpid side, usually bleak, with doomed characters suffering in static frames. But they are the films selected for festivals and U.S. distribution, and they tell us more about the Westerners who choose them than about the national cinemas they emerge from. They are also a big reason that foreign films, once catnip to educated Americans, no longer play an important role in our cultural life.

From a look at the official list you'd think that Asian moviemakers and moviegoers live on a diet of aesthetic tofu. If the Mandarins of received movie taste had their way, you would never have heard of Jackie Chan (whose Hong Kong action films took decades to arrive here). You wouldn't recognize that the Bollywood citations in "Moulin Rouge" and "Ghost World" are loving tributes to the Indian film musical, a genre every bit as delirious as a dervish after six cups of coffee. Even now, you may not know that there are such creatures as Korean romantic comedies, Thai war movies or (still, and bigger than ever) Japanese monster thrillers. These Asian pictures are made not for international juries but for home consumption — for moviegoers very like the Americans who prowl the plexes on a Friday night or the video racks any time.

But what do these Asian films look, move and smell like? What does the rest of the world's cinema do for fun? To find out, take a taxi or a plane right now to Anthology Film Archives in lower Manhattan, where the populist movie collective called Subway Cinema is putting on quite a show: a 11-picture spree called Asian Films Are Go!!! All those exclamation points are warranted, for the series fairly screams with the agitation and aggression of a form of popular entertainment demanding the same fair shake as their arty siblings with the goatees and the low pulse rate. Like a bunch of illegal Chinese refugees sardined into a boat sneaking up the East River, these movies — not films, get it?, but fast-moving pictures — just need to land in New York to prove how hard they work, how well they work.

In any truly film-savvy country, the directorial signatures attached to some of these movies would be brand names. Americans don't know Mani Rathnam from Manny Rothman (a Bronx tailor who retired to Miami Beach), but much of the world recognizes him as the prime mesmerist of Indian musical dramas; a native of Tamil, he finally made a Hindi-language extravaganza, "Dil Se," on show at Anthology. Seijun Suzuki — who in 1967 squatted and hatched "Branded to Kill," the gnarliest, alltime-noiriest existential gangster pic — is back at 78 with a femme remake, "Pistol Opera." Tokyo's renowned and reviled naughty-boy Takashi Miike ("Fudoh: The New Generation," "Audition") makes movies that go nuts by efficiently tightening the story line like piano wire around your...we'll say, neck. His psychotic sitcom "Visitor Q" is this festival's succès de scandale.

"Visitor Q" is one of two entries in the Subway series that have already made an impact where it counts: with Hollywood moguls and with the censors. DreamWorks has bought the U.S. remake rights to the Korean romance "My Sassy Girl." And the New Zealand High Court has shut down a screening of Miike's illuminating cinematrocity at the Becks Incredible Film Festival and threatened to fire the chief censor because he allowed it to be shown in that one cloistered venue. Who says films have no power to effect social change?

What follows is a rundown on the films. To readers not in New York, or those who have missed some of the film in the series (which runs from April 26 to May 2), I can suggest only that you find the video stores in any large city's Japantown or Indian enclave. For Korean movies, Manhattanites should pester their neighborhood grocer. If none of these options avail you, do at least read the promotional material by Grady Hendrix. It's fabulously muscular writing, as high-octane as the films and often more artful; I expect that it will soon land Hendrix in Elvis Mitchell's chair at the New York Times, or mine at TIME.

But enough of my pen envy. A bounty awaits you. One way or another, you need to open your veins to the toxic liberation of Asian pop films. Warning: they are addictive.



DEJA VOODOO

What's more fun than seeing sequels to movies you never heard of? Four of the 11 films are follow-ups, but that shouldn't scare you away. Except for "Pistol Opera," which is mystically mystifying on all levels, these movies are self-contained, or simple enough that you can get your bearings before the next plot-twist cloverleaf.

"Gamera 2: Attack of the Legion" (1996) and "Gamera 3: The Revenge of Iris" (1999) are actually the 10th and 11th episodes in the giant-flying-turtle series that began in 1965, babysat a generation of American TV kids on Saturday mornings and inspired some of the finest musical japery on "Mystery Science Theater 3000." Smile in memory of Tom Servo's hipster improv on the "Gamera" theme ("Night bleeds out into the Tokyo streets and Gamera shakes his tail at a Ginza bistro with eyes like baby moons. He lights up a skyscraper like a Chesterfield and strolls singin' 'Gamera!'") and Mike Nelson's Michael Feinstein lounge-pianist version ("The second part is a little more fun. It has a sort of George and Ira Gershwin feel to it. 'Shell, teeth, eyes, claws, scales, breath, fun.' It sort of sneaks up on you. 'Boo,' it says.")

The Subway fest's two "Gamera"s, both directed by Kaneko Shusuke, are pretty good on their own; mature, no-nonsense affairs with handsome special effects, they don't require robot jokes or a five-year-old's sense of wonder and indulgence to keep you awake. Eventually, of course, Shusuke has to hand reins to Gamera's keepers, the computer and puppet wizards, who do a swell job. And when the local Gamerologist articulates the riddle of the ages — "Why is Japan continually besieged by monsters?" — even a toddler can reply in two words: box office. Stay away and they'll go away.

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