Pulp Thrillers and Soul Balms

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The New York Sun

The New York Asian Film Festival puts the best of the Chinatown DVD rack up on the big screen. Depending on your purview, this indispensable event could either be underground or mainstream: It’s both an intellectual haven and a fan-boy heaven.

Geographically, this year’s edition is conspicuously lopsided, with 14 films from Japan and seven from Korea, and only a handful from anywhere else. Amazingly, China is almost a nonpresence. Thailand puts in an appearance (with “Art of the Devil 2,” a nominal sequel to a film never released here), as do Malaysia (the grimy, Hong Kong-influenced “Gangster”) and India, which gets a Bollywood close-up with a retrospective on filmmaker Ram Gopal Varma.

In the program notes for “Peacock” (June 22), the lone Chinese film, NYAFF lays out a de facto mission statement: “Whereas most Chinese art house movies do actual medical damage to viewers with their chic nihilism and long boring shots of people riding around in trucks, ‘Peacock’ is a balm for your soul.”

But even as someone who admires films about people riding around in trucks, I could still warm to this 142-minute post-Cultural Revolution family saga, which won the Silver Bear at Berlin last year. Directed by an early Zhang Yimou cinematographer, Gu Changwei, it falls on the sentimentality spectrum somewhere between Mr. Zhang’s tougher historical epics (“To Live”) and his poisonously maudlin later films (“The Road Home,” “Happy Times”). Dividing his narrative into three segments, each focusing on a different sibling, Mr. Gu remains doggedly interested in his characters, relegating social changes to the background without too much loss in impact.

An even more stripped-down character study, Ryuichi Hiroki’s “It’s Only Talk” (June 24 and 28), follows a manic-depressive woman (Shinobu Terajima) as she and her sympathetic cousin (Etsushi Toyokawa) attempt to bring some order to her life. (The characters’ rapport is solidified in the festival’s silliest metaphor, the purchasing of two goldfish.) Far less purposefully than Hou Hsiao-hsien’s “Cafe Lumiere,” “It’s Only Talk” attempts to evoke a state of interior disquiet through long takes of eating, talking, and lying about. Mr. Hiroki’s “Vibrator” was perhaps too gimmicky – using intertitles to relay its heroine’s thoughts – but “It’s Only Talk” errs in the opposite direction and eventually succumbs to its own inarticulateness.

Languorous for different reasons, Nobuhiro Yamashita’s “Linda Linda Linda” (June 24 and July 1) follows four girls through their rehearsal process for a school rock concert. The pacing is almost perversely slow, but for those who can stick with the film, it pays off in the rare moments when the girls break out of their uniformed strictures, notably in the scene where a boy declares his love to the group’s lead singer (Bae Doo-na), an exchange student who hilariously underreacts.

Like “Linda Linda Linda,” Song Ilgon’s “The Magicians” (June 22 and 26) is centered on a band, but the story is more of a Korean “Big Chill,” with the old musicians gathered at a winter getaway to ring in the new year and recall their guitarist’s suicide three years earlier. The film is shot in a single 95-minute take, and the staging – shifting deftly between interiors and exteriors, with new locales often signifying a jump in time – is impeccable, and lends the final catharsis an added weight. Not without a playful streak (one character is a monk who used to be an Olympic snowboard champion), “The Magicians” may be the festival’s most intricate gem.

More typically manic, Katsuhito Ishii’s “Funky Forest: The First Contact” (June 20 and 24) seems to approximate the experience of channel-surfing Japanese television at 3 a.m. A surreal barrage of Matthew Barney centaurs, talking parasites, bizarro title cards (“Babbling Hotspring Vixens in the Big Gingko Tree”), and imperfectly placed intermissions, “Funky Forest” may exhaust those with a low tolerance for zaniness (see also the films of Takashi Miike, represented here by “The Great Yokai War”). But for viewers with a yen for serial-form cinema, this 150-minute pseudo-epic may be ideal filmgoing – there’s no need to catch up with it, because there’s nothing to grab onto in the first place.

For a heady balance of insanity and poetry, the best bet may be Kim Jiwoon’s “A Bittersweet Life” (June 16 and 27), a gory Korean revenge film that will unavoidably draw comparisons to the work of Park Chanwook (“Lady Vengeance,” the better-known “Oldboy”). After an enforcer (Lee Byung-heon) fails to murder his boss’s philandering girlfriend, every gang member in town teams up to kill him, unleashing a number of violent set pieces (and several of the weapons used in “Clue”). Where Mr. Kim one-ups Mr. Park is in showing violence not as a cyclical phenomenon but as an uncontrollable force. The main character’s sole act of kindness somehow precipitates more harm than inaction. It’s no classic, but it’s exactly the kind of film one hopes to find at NYAFF – a pulp thriller where the body count can’t be shrugged off.

Until July 1 (Anthology Film Archives, 32 Second Avenue, between 1st and 2nd Streets, 212-505-5181; and the Imaginasian, 239 E. 59th Street, between Second and Third Avenues, 212-371-6682).

The New York Sun

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