nyaff helter skelter

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 third look at the films of NYAFF 2013 takes a detour into the dark side with death, dismemberment and some horrifically damaged psyches.

nyaff helter skelter2

Helter Skelter (Japan)

Lilico (Erika Sawajiri) is on top of the world. Supermodel, actress, idol to teenage girls, and the envy and desire of women and men across Japan, she wants for nothing. But she’s also hiding something. Her look and persona are a fabrication of plastic lies, press manipulations and baby parts, and like a 21st century mash-up of Edgar Allan Poe and Dorian Gray the ticking of a clock echoes in her brain counting down the last days of both her beauty and relevance. There’s no chance in hell though that she’ll be going quietly, and as  she sees younger, fresher replacements moving in from the wings and an investigation into her plastic surgery activities moving forward she becomes total chaos incarnate.

Director Mika Ninagawa makes her feature debut after a very successful career as a photographer and brings that sharp eye for color, detail and meaning along with her. Like her photos, Helter Skelter displays a color palette reminiscent of other Japanese films like Memories of Matsuko and Kamikaze Girls, but aside from a few odd hallucinations the events transpiring here are all set in a very real world. It’s also a very sad and disturbing world as it rips open and exposes the fame machine running rampant in Japan (but easily transplantable to the US) that drives young women in particular to value perceived beauty over common sense/decency or self-worth.

The film teases body horror with the plastic surgery angle and talk of black market baby organs, but the focus remains almost wholly on Lilico’s depraved descent into her own personal hell. She’s a terror to work for as evident by her outbursts over water temperature and insistence on cunnilingus on demand, and Sawajiri handles both the outward cruelty and inward emotional spiral with a strong performance that leads with her eyes. The film’s two hour runtime sticks with the theme though and like a model overstaying her time in the limelight it starts to lose its shine before the credits roll. (The multiple false endings don’t help either.) Still, the film is never dull and almost always a feast for the eyes thanks to gorgeous cinematography and the leading lady who forces us to see beyond and beyond the skin-deep beauty to the young woman quivering beneath.

Grade: B

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nyaff countdown

Countdown (Thailand)

Three young, Thai transplants living in New York City count down the final hours of the year and realize too late that they’re out of weed. With their usual source dried up and heading back to Thailand they turn to an unknown dealer who goes by the name of Jesus (David Asavanond). Sure they’re Buddhists, but how bad of an idea can a dealer named Jesus be? They find out soon enough when he arrives with the goods but decides to stay and party with the hipsters as they ring in the new year. His raucous personality and ridiculous but slightly disturbing anecdotes keep them briefly enthralled, but when they try to show him the door he turns violent. He also reveals himself to be far more than a simple drug dealer as he begins to mete out punishment for what he believes to be the trio’s various crimes.

At its core director Nattawat Poonpiriya‘s film is a small slice of supernaturally-tinged exploitation with more than a little bit of comedy. Tight confines and a limited cast ostensibly work to create a clasutrophobic feel as the sounds of the evening turn from laughs to screams, but scenes that should have seen a growing suspense instead fail to achieve much in the way of anything. Part of the problem is the trio of potential victims who never find their own voices as characters. Jesus quickly becomes the only personality in the apartment, and while Asavanond deserves credit for going against the grain as a white actor in an Asian film who can actually act, he leaves the three college kids as bland and blank character slates. We simply don’t care all that much about their predicament, and that’s an issue in a film with a message that is all about caring.

While it fails to connect overall there are elements within the film that still manage to entertain. Most obvious and successful is a sense of humor that continues even as the danger grows. From a humorous, iPad-assisted musical suspense cue to some entertaining banter the film maintains a mostly light-hearted feel until the third act. It also manages some slick, low budget style with a camera that moves fluidly between rooms and over walls as if inspired by another threesome’s misadventures in Danny Boyle’s Shallow Grave. Unfortunately it lacks any of that film’s smarts or visceral action as not even a nail gun in the wrong hands finds that much traction leaving viewers instead with a mild, forgettable and mostly uneventful New Year’s party.

Grade: C-

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nyaff fridge

The Fridge (Philippines)

Tina has arrived back in the Philippines from an extended stay in America after the death of her parents, but as she makes herself familiar with the large, moderately creepy old house she discovers secrets better left undisturbed and unplugged. Weird neighbors peek in windows, a disfigured old man bursts in the front door insisting she leave immediately, and bottles of wet stuff keep appearing on her kitchen table. Oh, and the refrigerator keeps eating people. It would be enough to make anyone book a return flight back to San Francisco, or at least say no to leftovers, but Tina sticks it out to find the answers behind her parents’ demise.

There are lots of reasons to dislike this movie, but the core one comes down to an imbalance in premise and execution. The film is played fairly straight with only the slightest edge of camp or over-the-top goofiness (usually reserved for the neighbors gay roommate), and that tone just doesn’t match the core plot line here involving a haunted, tentacle-filled, John Carpenter’s The Thing-inspired kitchen appliance. An infusion of laughs would have helped immensely as instead we’re left with actors of questionable skill trying and failing to play it serious.

The film’s script is of no help as it barely manages a setup before devolving into a series of dull and repetitive actions. It’s not that bright either as exemplified by a move from Tina being accosted by a disfigured man in her house immediately to her shopping as if nothing had happened, and the mystery over that man’s identity? Non-existent. And Tina’s inexplicable lack of concern or awareness when jars of goo repeatedly appear on her table would be annoying if any other part of the script made us expect any better. On the bright side there are one or two special effects that tease impressive, but the big money shots manage little of their magic. Ultimately The Fridge is a concept that would have (and actually did) work better as a short film. There’s not enough of a story here to sustain interest resulting in a tale that makes it quite clear that the light’s off whether the door is open or closed.

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