Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Don't Forget It Just Because It's Chinatown

The New York Asian Film Festival begins later this week, marking the start of festival season for me, with Fantasia in Montreal soon to follow a few weeks later and Fantastic Fest in Austin in September (I’ve heard tell of a festival of sorts in Toronto around the same time, too). The NYAFF, lorded over by those wonderful guys from Subway Cinema, is always a welcome sight, as it’s an opportunity to sample the hits of the last year from all over Asia on the big screen (despite the fact that bootleg DVDs are being sold all over the city) and to be up to date on all the films that your geek friends will be talking about, like everyone has already seen the latest film by Kim Jee-Woon. The lineup is solid, as usual, with a few potential blockbusters (THE BANQUET, a martial arts version of HAMLET starring Zhang ZiYi; I’M A CYBORG BUT THAT’S OK, the latest from OLDBOY director Park Chan Wook), fun flicks (DYNAMITE WARRIOR, the newest Thai martial arts insane-o-fest; the Japanese musical MEMORIES OF MATSUKO) and weird flicks (the Pakistani gore epic HELL’S GROUND, from the geniuses behind the brilliant Mondo Macabro DVD label) that (one hopes) are all sure to please. In addition to the regular lineup of films that’s running at the very nice IFC Center in the beautifully still grungy part of the West Village, a series devoted solely to new Japanese cinema will be running in conjunction with Japan Society which will include Shusuke Kaneko’s DEATH NOTE films (the two highest grossing Japanese films of 2006) and GAMERA THE BRAVE, the latest in the long-running series (this one not related to Kaneko’s excellent GAMERA trilogy of the 1990s). Oddly enough, the one NYAFF screening I think I’m looking forward to the most is one that I’ve already seen countless number of times, John Woo’s HARD-BOILED, which is being sequalized in video game format as JOHN WOO PRESENTS STRANGLEHOLD. It’s been a while since I’ve seen HARD-BOILED, but it’s easily one of my favorite action films of all time and to see it on a big screen again (which I have many, many times) will be a bit of a thrill.

More so than that, the HARD-BOILED screening, and the NYAFF in general, is a lovely opportunity to revisit those days when you didn’t need a fucking film festival to see some Asian cinema in New York. Certainly, Asian cinema has seen quite a leap in popularity and availability in the last decade or so, but for a long time you could get all your Asian film jollies pretty much any night of the week by simply visiting one of NYC’s many beautiful Chinatown movie theaters. The Sun Sing, The Music Palace and The Rosemary (once the home of Hong Kong Category III flicks, now a Buddhist Temple!) were the ones I frequented, though there were others that came before them and with the Music Palace now having finally been torn down last year (after having been closed since 2000), Chinatown cinema exist no more in NYC and in most major cities in North America, although I understand that a Chinatown theater is still up and running in San Francisco. A lot of other folks will pooh-pooh the Hong Kong film explosion of the late 80s-early 90s as the beginning of the geek film era, but these films were (and are) extremely important in expanding a lot of cinematic boundaries for people, myself included. They helped to erase the stigma of subtitles and the idea that American culture was the only culture with anything interesting to say. On top of that, they gave us a shitload of great movies from some pretty god damn great directors, and if you don’t believe me, then why does Johnnie To gets regular competition spots in festivals like Cannes and Venice and ask Wong Kar-Wai where he’d be if it wasn’t for the Tarantino-types who first discovered his work at theaters like these. To me, some of the most exciting moviegoing experiences of my life were in those theaters, where I got to see a bunch of movies I loved that no one else was talking about. I remember one summer’s night in 1993 going with a friend to see CRIME STORY, the then-new Jackie Chan film that was playing the Sun-Sing (just under the Manhattan Bridge, now a series of shops and offices) and staying for the second feature (yes, they played double features) to discover Jet Li and Corey Yuen’s FONG SAI YUK, which is still my favorite martial arts movie of all time (a really wonderful picture). I saw DRUNKEN MASTER II, FISTS OF LEGEND, HARD-BOILED, RUMBLE IN THE BRONX, the ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA sequels and countless other Hong Kong films of the 90s well before there was any hype, when all you had to go on was a poster and your instincts. The theaters may not have been in the best shape (cats would often patrol the floors for mice and rats), but the movies were great and the audiences were quiet with a capital Q, so who the hell cared about crappy projection?

The Hong Kong cinema took a serious hit in the mid-90s, thanks to a loss of talent (John Woo, Chow Yun-Fat) to the west, the coming of the 1997 handover to mainland China, and piracy, so soon moviegoers chose to stay home and watch the latest films on VCD, then DVD. The hits would start to show up at the Chinese CD stores before you could see them in theaters (even after the Sun-Sing closed) and suddenly these films would start to be shown uptown at places like the Cinema Village and Film Forum. When the Music Palace closed in 2000, I hadn’t gone to see a movie there in over two years (which, for the record, was Jet Li’s HITMAN during its opening week). But I’ve never stopped going to Chinatown, thanks to all the shops that would sell all the latest Hong Kong hits (and other Asian films) on DVD, stores like Lai Ying (best prices and they don’t sell bootlegs; ask for Paul), but when I walk past the empty space (soon to be a high-priced hotel) where the Music Palace once stood (right next Lai Ying), I’m always a little sad. Subway Cinema started as a response to this, and has been dutifully keeping the torch lit ever since. Last July 4th weekend, my friends and I spent a delightful afternoon watching some of the Hong Kong classics on the big screen at Anthology Film Archives; all the prints were left over from the Music Palace and were all in surprisingly good condition. We pigged out on bad food while sitting in bad seats (thank god the NYAFF is at the IFC Center this year!) and delighted in some wonderful films that are still a hell of a lot of fun and the Chinatown memories were kept very much alive that day. I’m still a fan of Hong Kong cinema, and because of it I discovered the rest of Asian cinema and with it, my love, understanding and appreciation of cinema deepened and the crack that is movies became a lifelong addiction. I’ll be attending many shows at the NYAFF and Fantasia and will certainly be telling all you about some of them, but if it were up to me, I’d be watching them in the same second-rate Chinatown movie houses that helped make me love these films so much. God, do I miss them sometimes.

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