New York Braces For Asian Invasion

This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.

The New York Sun

Although “The Departed” and “The Grudge” have become signposts of the American pop cultural landscape, the films that served as their foundations remain elusive in this country. But years before Hollywood executives even got wind of these best-kept secrets, local moviegoers had gotten a sneak peek at the New York Asian Film Festival.

“Many of these movies debuted in America at this festival,” a veteran film critic, Michael Atkinson, said. “‘Infernal Affairs’ did. ‘Ju-On’ did. Their genres typically attract an audience that won’t put up with subtitles, and no distributors are investing money in them. If American teenagers were forced to watch the original ‘Pulse,’ they’d probably love it.”

The New York Asian Film Festival’s sixth edition, which opens at the IFC Center tonight, allows local moviegoers another opportunity to sample more than 30 eclectic offerings from that continent’s pop and cult cinema. This year’s festival boasts a lineup that ranges from the latest works by the who’s-who of the Asian film industry (Park Chan-wook, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Takashi Miike, Johnny To, et al.) to an obscure Pakistani zombie flick. Whether any of the titles could spawn the next big Hollywood remake is anyone’s guess.

Three weeks ago, the festival suffered a setback when sponsor Midway Games, makers of “Ms. Pac-Man,” abruptly pulled the plug. But the company is now back onboard, NYAFF spokesman and frequent New York Sun contributor Grady Hendrix said.

“There were some miscommunications, because the company never meant to pull its sponsorship. In the worst-case scenario, we would have put personal money on the line and just recouped from ticket sales. But we’ve secured Dragon Dynasty (the Weinstein Company’s nascent Asian label) as a sponsor, and Midway is still fully committed. We’re all pretty excited.”

New sponsors mean new venues for the festival, which will move to IFC Center and Japan Society this year from Anthology Film Archives and the ImaginAsian in order to accommodate Midway’s game displays and Japan Society’s centennial celebration. NYAFF will co-present the latter’s “Japan Cuts” selection of more than 15 titles screening between July 5 and July 15.

Mr. Hendrix confessed that NYAFF organizers are relative neophytes. In fact, none of them has prior experience in putting together a film festival.

“In 1999, when the Music Palace in Chinatown was closing, we stumbled across one another,” he said. “We tried to get someone to buy the place, and that turned out to be a bad idea. It was just never going to happen, so we decided to form Subway Cinema. A lot of festivals begin with generating letterheads and securing corporate sponsorships, but for us it always starts with what movies we want to show.”

Mr. Hendrix acquired his own affinity for Asian films first by living in close proximity to the Music Palace and taking advantage of its $6 double features. Soon after, he and his wife spent a few years living in Hong Kong, where they enjoyed a trove of great cinema.

“I hate it when people say there are no good movies out, because what they really mean is there are no good American movies out,” he said. “There are 20, 30 film cultures around the world to choose from. Once you’ve discovered them, it’s hard to go back. Of course, culturally it’s going to be strange. When you go see a Hollywood movie, it’s fun to know who all the stars are. But it really doesn’t take long to catch up on who’s famous in Korea or Hong Kong.”

Although South Korean cinema has quickly penetrated the entire Asian continent and even Europe, it has taken a while for North America to catch on. “The explosion of Korean films for East Coast audiences began with this festival,” Mr. Atkinson said. “The recent $2 million box-office gross of the monster flick ‘The Host’ finally signals some progress.”

Still, Mr. Hendrix notes that American distributors are only comfortable placing bets on Asian films in genres that have proven successful.

“A lot of distributors are only interested in genre films aimed at young males,” he said. “What they don’t realize is action and horror films are dead and buried at this point. They are neglecting young women, who would love anime and romantic comedies. No one is bridging that gap. The new Park Chan-wook doesn’t have distribution. One big reason is it isn’t ‘Oldboy II’ and it doesn’t have any bloodshed in it. But all of the festival screenings are sold-out at this point. A movie like ‘Memories of Matsuko’ hasn’t been picked up because they don’t know how to sell it — as opposed to ‘Amélie,’ which is a dumber and less interesting movie. It’s a tough climate to take a chance in.”

“Memories of Matsuko,” which Mr. Hendrix describes as “‘Citizen Kane’ meets ‘Moulin Rouge’,” is one of the NYAFF titles he is most excited about. Then there’s “After This Our Exile,” the first film in 17 years by Patrick Tam, the mentor to Wong Kar-wai. Mr. Hendrix was also thrilled to land “Nightmare Detective,” the new effort from “Tetsuo: The Iron Man” director Shinya Tsukamoto.

“We really thought we had lost this movie, but at the last minute it came through,” he said. “We’re getting bigger and better movies every year. It’s not the size of our ambition or our taste that’s changed, but our ability to pull it off.”

Through July 8 at IFC Center (323 Sixth Ave., 212-924-7771) and Japan Society (333 E. 47th St., 212-715-1258).

The New York Sun

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