The last two weeks have seen a flurry (a flurry, I say!) of activity for me, what with my Austin jaunt (did I just link to myself? Yes I did), friends visiting from England, the July 4th holiday, and on top of that, the New York Asian Film Festival, which is about to wind up this weekend. Since the Subway Cinema guys (who organize this crazy fest) are friends of mine, I feel obliged to attend, although I'd go even if I didn't have to, since I'm interested in seeing most of these films to begin with. The festival's move to the IFC Center in the west Village was welcome not only because the seats were so damn comfortable (maybe a little too comfortable, as I dozed off during one show) and the projection actually good, but because it was also a 10 minute walk from my workplace and another 5 minutes away from the PATH train home to Jersey City. Ah, the joys of convenience. I couldn't always make my schedule work in order to see all the films I wanted to (I missed I'M A CYBORG, BUT THAT'S OK), which I'm fine with because there's always Fantasia.
As I sat down to view the new South Korean action flick CITY OF VIOLENCE, a friend of mine who helps to program the festival said, "If this were made 20 years ago, it would have starred Patrick Swayze", which he was trying to make sound like a compliment, but it also described the film in terms that are a bit too literal, as CITY OF VIOLENCE is kinda silly and I wasn't really having it. It's actually more than a little too derivative of A BETTER TOMORROW, which isn't the first film to do so, but it did kind of stick out to the point of deterrence. Really more of a martial arts film than a gunplay epic, it takes the old standby of a group of old friends who reunite when one is murdered years later. Of course one of the friends will turn out to be the one to have done it and of course there will be some spectacularly bloody vengeance against them along with some talk of friendship and brotherhood. CITY OF VIOLENCE has all of the proper elements in place and delivers big time when it comes to the violence part, but too often I felt like I'd walked down this road before. Originality isn't its strong suit and logic isn't part of the plan, either, but I have to say that once the punches and the kicks start flying, this picture is very good at doing all that. Of course, you also have scenes where entire gangs of about 100 or so are defeated by just two men and that's just a little too much. Yeah, the fights are cool, but you know what isn't cool? Ripping off better movies. I know I sound like a killjoy for saying it, but it's true.
DYNAMITE WARRIOR, on the other hand, is also totally ludicrous, but it's played like a cartoon and because of this it works. The current wave of Thai martial arts films have proven to be tremendously fun thus far, with the magnificent BORN TO FIGHT taking top honors, and DYNAMITE WARRIOR (which actually opened theatrically today in advance of its DVD release later this month) is another good one worth your time. I'd recount the plot, but it's really all just a bunch of silliness and the fights and action scenes are truly the film's excuse for being and DYNAMITE WARRIOR justifies its existence very well. It's all just one giant piece of insanity that's here to make you laugh and have some fun. I should also point out that DYNAMITE WARRIOR is just as much a comedy as it is an action film (though it's not a spoof) and the comic aspect of it is what really helps it out. Many of the other Thai action films I've sampled, like the Tony Jaa stuff, doesn't really have a lot of humor, although I've seen some pretty good Thai comedies (like CITIZEN DOG and SARS WARS), so the combo of Thai comedy and action makes for a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup of a movie. Maybe it isn't as perfect as a Reese's, but it's tasty like one and smile-inducing, too.
The midnight showing of Nam Ki-woong's NEVER BELONGS TO ME was only the first indicator that this one was going to be more than a little nutty, but it didn't quite prepare you for what you would eventually see before your eyes. If you viewed the NYAFF trailer you'll have noticed the inclusion of a "Penis Gun" in there somewhere, and that comes from NEVER BELONGS TO ME; what's fascinating (if such a thing were possible) is that the penis gun not only becomes a key plot point, but also gives it an element of tragedy that makes the film more than just weirdness (think about some of the implications of having a gun for a penis would be and then tell me it's not tragic). I don't mind admitting that the film doesn't really make a lot of sense, but I also don't think it's bizarre just for the sake of being bizarre. Nam is trying to make a statement about relationships and how one person can make another feel used and insignificant (at least I think that what he's going for) and he does it by going in an extremely unusual route. Confusing as it sometimes might be, NEVER BELONGS TO ME is never dull or pretentious and it's also occasionally very funny, sometimes sad, even erotic and it's a hard one to get out of your head. I was reminded of some of the Miike films from the early part of the decade, like VISITOR Q and GOZU that pushed the envelope without losing its sense of purpose and I suspect we might well be hearing from Nam Ki-woong again on these shores.
Another South Korean bust was CRUEL WINTER BLUES, another picture that I wanted to like more, and certainly liked parts of, but couldn't get 100% behind simply because I felt I'd seen it before. A gangster goes on a stakeout in order to kill another gangster, befriends the gangster's mother and when the time comes to actually do the job, he finds he has a soul, after all. This kind of formula usually works and like I said, I liked certain things in the film, but CRUEL WINTER BLUES felt too familiar to win me over. The actors are all very good and the film has a comfortable small-town feel (almost Canadian in a way, and I mean that as a compliment), but it never felt fresh, never made me want to go with it any more than I did. It's not generic and by no means a bad film, but the familiarity of the material simply did in any chances the film had in winning me over. I wish I liked it more than I did, but I also wish it were better. Them's the breaks.
Another festival highlight was the screening of Omar Kahn's ZIBAHKHANA - HELL'S GROUND, but professional conflicts keep me from reviewing it here (yes, even here). It was preceded by a wonderfully insane 20-minute clip reel of some of the highlights of Pakistani cinema that is some of the best stuff I've seen on a big screen all year. Bravo, boys.