The 2013 New York Asian Film Festival runs June 28 – July 15. If you’re lucky enough to be in the area and interested in tickets check out the official NYAFF page here, but if not feel free to follow along with us as we take a look at several of the movies playing the fest this year.
As the name implies the festival presents new and select films from several countries including Japan, South Korea, Thailand, the Philippines, China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.
Our fifth and final look at the films of NYAFF 2013 explores the wars being fought on the front lines of three very different battlefields.
Cold War (Hong Kong)
An explosion at a Hong Kong movie theater puts the entire city on edge, but it also creates a clash of wills at the highest levels of the police department. With the commissioner out of the country on official business his two deputies step up with differing plans of attack, and things get even worse when an entire van full of police officers are abducted by unknown bad guys. MB Lee (Tony Leung Kar-fai) is old school through and through and favors an immediate and aggressive response, while Sean Lau (Aaron Kwok) prefers negotiation in order to secure the safety of his officers and Hong Kong’s citizens. Complicating things further is the realization that Lee’s son is among the kidnapped leading to revelations, intrigue and some incredibly dirty office politics.
Writers/directors Longman Leung and Sunny Luk are clearly aiming for an Infernal Affairs vibe here both intensity-wise and commercially, but while the latter goal came to fruition thanks to boffo box office and awards acclaim the film itself doesn’t work as well. The two leads come across more as caricatures than fully realized characters leaving their face-offs feeling a bit too artificial and overly dramatic. That immense seriousness is found throughout the film as it asks viewers to get worked up by intense montages of cops looking at whiteboards and waving their hands in the air.
None of this stops the film from finding and executing some entertaining and electric set pieces, but they’re few and far between until the third act. The final twenty minutes offer up some fun gunplay and fireworks, and while they’re hurt slightly by obvious CGI it remains the movie’s high point. Action and drama aside there is an interesting subtext here about Hong Kong’s relationship with China that for better or worse is presented without a heavy hand. It’s definitely interesting, and as the film ends with the expectation of a sequel (and possible franchise) it’s something that may be explored more in the future.
An Inaccurate Memoir (China)
China in 1942 was no place for the Chinese as Japanese invaders made their lives a living hell. Gao (Zhang Yi) is out for revenge against the foreign marauders pillaging his homeland, and he sets in motion an elaborate plan that begins when he witnesses a local gang in action. Fang (Huang Xiaoming) and his followers are a deadly efficient band of outlaws unafraid to take the fight to the Japanese when the reward is worth it, but they’re also happy staying out of the army of the Rising Sun’s way. Gao gets himself intentionally taken prisoner by Fang’s gang, earns their trust by saving their asses during a risky standoff and slowly convinces them to join his cause. Not everyone will survive their elaborate plan of attack, but their legend will never die.
Director/co-writer Yang Shupeng‘s third feature is an action/western with heart that surprisingly succeeds best in its quieter moments. Of course this means the action/western parts fare less well unfortunately with the reasons boiling down to two main reasons. First up are the script and editing which move the story and events around in such a disjointed way as to minimize their effectiveness. Moments of adrenaline are abruptly cut off and replaced with less visceral and interesting scenes causing the film’s pace to suffer dramatically. Equally damaging to that pace is the film’s score. The music itself is fine, quite good in fact, but its placement throughout the film is abysmal. The tracks absolutely fail to create or even maintain the energy or emotion of the visuals they’re repeatedly paired against.
These issues are detrimental, and it’s a real shame as the characters and setting offer up some lively and affecting opportunities. As mentioned above, the film’s quieter moments involving two struggling romances carry far more weight than much of the loud and jarringly-edited action sequences. The final set piece only works in part because of the earlier attention paid to the relationships, but as with the rest of the film the music playing over various dramatic deaths damages what should be viewers’ heartfelt reactions. An Inaccurate Memoir remains an interesting look at an uncommon story, but one can’t help but think the tale could have been told far better.
Drug War (Hong Kong/China)
Captain Zhang (Sun Honglei) is a cop on a mission, and that mission is bringing down as many drug dealers as possible. After wrapping up an undercover operation to catch drug mules entering the country he happens across a car crash victim (Louis Koo) and suspects something fishy. The man is immediately identified as a major narcotics manufacturer, and faced with the death penalty he agrees to help Zhang and his squad arrest some bigger fish up the food chain. The next three days are a sleep-deprived race to ensnare the bad guys using any means necessary.
The legendary Johnnie To is no stranger to fantastic films about criminals and the cops who hunt them, but here he delivers an exciting thriller that takes a fairly fascinating and somewhat unique route to its climactic and bloody finale. Instead of moving from one excessively stylish shootout to the next the film moves through the 72 hour period with the patience and minutiae of a dry procedural. That’s not to imply that it’s a dull affair in the slightest as instead it becomes a fascinating series of setups and operations interrupted periodically with bits of mayhem. And what glorious mayhem it is. One scene involving a pair of deaf mutes calls to mind Jackie Chan’s clash with a similar foe in Police Story 2 although the action here is relegated exclusively to gunplay and bombs as opposed to martial arts and remote-control weapons. Even better is the film’s ridiculous finale that sees more rounds fired and bloody squibs exploded than most films in recent memory. It’s beautiful chaos.
Happily the film never shorts viewers of the character half of the equation particularly in regard to Honglei and Koo’s ongoing battle of wits. Koo’s character is in custody through much of the film, but he manages real emotion in short order after the loss of a loved one as well as a twisted audience affection that he’s always on the verge of abusing. Honglei seems at first saddled with a straight arrow good guy, but his devotion to the job and his people makes him one of To’s most heroic and honorable characters. His seriousness is made that much more powerful and respectable after seeing him move in and out of undercover character as a man named Haha. It’s like a switch being turned on and off, and it’s mesmerizing. The film as a whole is similar in how it moves seamlessly between a detailed, report-like presentation of the squad’s more mundane actions into frenzied and turbulent action sequences. The somewhat generic title of Drug War implies a grander story to be told, so hopefully this singular battle in that war is but the first of an ongoing series following cases to their bitter conclusion.