Home / Crime, Sociopaths, and Revenge: Asian Film At Its Finest at the Asian American Film Festival

Crime, Sociopaths, and Revenge: Asian Film At Its Finest at the Asian American Film Festival

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I just saw The Departed. A few months late and a few dollars short (thanks to Netflix) but it was on purpose, because I wanted to watch Infernal Affairs first. I'm glad I waited. It’s unfortunate that Martin Scorsese has resorted to making big budget blockbusters in the last few years, because it has diluted his body of work.

This is not to say that there’s anything wrong with big budget blockbusters; it’s just that the ones that Scorsese has been making in the last few years are pretty flat compared with his earlier stuff. While it was tightly shot, with decent cinematography, The Departed seemed shallow and unreal overall. More importantly, it did not fare well against its elder twin, Infernal Affairs, for three main reasons.

Asian American Film FestivalFirst of all, the plot for the latter was completely original – something that very few moviegoers had ever had the chance to see. Secondly, the actors brought out an incredible level of depth and complexity in their characters, which was not seen with The Departed. And third, and most importantly, the concept of loyalty – on which the entire plot hinges – seemed so much more culturally believable in Hong Kong, than it did in Boston. As a bonus, audiences for Infernal Affairs had no soft landing in the end – the finale was more powerful, more realistic, and consequently, more cynical than The Departed's. When comparing the two, Infernal Affairs comes out head and shoulders above The Departed, all of its Oscars notwithstanding.

While Infernal Affairs has had the privilege of being remade by Martin Scorsese, not all films coming out of East and Southeast Asia share this honor. Over the last ten years or so, especially since the economies there have started to pick up, the film industries have been booming. As a result, there have been some real gems that have been created on that side of the Pacific. Too many other films deserve the exposure that Infernal Affairs received, and quite frankly, almost all of them are not going to get it.

Most likely, several of you reading this will miss out on some examples of excellent cinema only because you never get the chance to hear of a particular film. Readers in the Bay Area however, need not despair. An excellent opportunity is only a few days away. I’m talking, of course, about the Asian American Film Festival that’s showing in San Francisco, Berkeley, and San Jose, California, from March 15 through March 25. Some of the finest films shot in the last decade are going to be previewed there, including some which have never received any prior western exposure, either in the form of widespread DVD availability or theatrical release.

The Day A Pig Fell Into The Well

The Day A Pig Fell Into The Well

One of the striking features of the festival is a Hong Sang-soo retrospective. Sang-soo is a South Korean filmmaker who received critical recognition with his debut directorial feature The Day A Pig Fell Into The Well, released in 1996. His latest feature is Woman on the Beach, which was released last year. The Festival is featuring a complete screening of all his films.

A recurrent theme in all of Sang-soo’s films is the alienation and stunted emotional growth experienced by his characters. They all relate to others in a unique way, which clearly shows how they can be members of society but yet remain completely detached from it. These people are sociopaths on some level, creating a world for themselves which is completely isolated from the real world. What is most interesting is to see how they react to each other, and to their own handicap, especially since they themselves are unaware of it.

What is most disturbing is that if their detachment were not so extreme and their emotional void not quite so empty, they might just be people like you or me. If you believe in accidents, then it is a small twist of fate that has made these characters the way they are and it is just as likely they could have gone another way, and ended up quite normal. This fragility is what makes Hong’s movies so enticingly repulsive. If you are interested in the complexities of human nature, Hong’s films are for you.



But we need not delve into the seamy underbelly of the human unconscious to enjoy a good movie. The festival is also showcasing some of the best action thrillers. Of note is the Filipino film Blackout, about an alcoholic, single father who wakes up to see his rear bumper bloodied after one of his blackouts. Directed by whiz kid Ato Bautista, the movie blurs the line between reality and unreality as we unravel the mystery.

Also showing is Chris Chan Lee’s Undoing, a neo-noir film based in (where else?) L.A. about crooked cops, blackmail, and a fugitive who returns home for some revenge. It stars Sung Kang of The Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift fame, in a strikingly different role.

And finally, the Canadian drama Dragon Boys tells the story of a Chinese Canadian cop who wants to take on the Vancouver triad. Directed by Jerry Ciccoritti, it showcases talent from the U.S., Canada and Hong Kong, and has been compared with The Sopranos and The Wire.

The Year Of The Fish

The Year of the Fish

For the more romantic types, we have David Kaplan’s The Year of the Fish, a rotoscoped fantasy film about a young Chinese immigrant, showcasing New York City like you’ve never seen it before. There’s also the racy and sexually charged Summer Palace which has director Lou Ye tell the story of two Beijing University students over the period of ten years. Noteworthy documentaries like Duc Nguyen’s Bolinao 52 showcase the story of a boat of ill-fated Vietnamese refugees who leave the country in the hopes of escaping persecution in 1980 Vietnam. There are even shorts from South Asia like the striking chapters from Sita Sings the Blues, which takes stories from the Indian epic, The Ramayana, and retells them in short animation form.

It’s impossible to highlight every good movie showing at the festival. This is just a handful of noticeable films and for each one mentioned here, there are about three or four films which are just as good. My only advice is this: If you’re in the Bay Area, check it out. You won’t want to miss it.

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