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 second glimpse into the films of NYAFF 2013 explores three period pieces infused with old-school action and personality.
The Bullet Vanishes (China/Hong Kong)
A young, female worker kneels before her co-workers and munitions factory boss and pleads her innocence. Her cries are met with silence, and with one final, tear shrouded plea she shoots herself in the head. Not long after a series of mysterious shooting deaths begin, but no bullets are ever found. Two detectives are drawn to the case including Inspector Song Dalu (Lau Ching-wan), a renowned investigator known for his sharp analytical mind, and Captain Guo Zhui (Nicholas Tse), a tough, no nonsense cop known to be the fastest gunslinger in the region. The two join forces in a fight against an unknown killer, local gangsters and corruption in their very own police department.
Writer/director Law Chi-leung has crafted a fairly gorgeous period piece that manages to blend action and mystery into a highly appealing concoction. Much of the story occurs in a relatively small geographical area, but that never becomes a hindrence. The details throughout help immerse viewers into the story that shares more than a few elements with Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes films. That’s not a bad thing either as the similarities are relegated mostly to the occasional use of slow-motion during act sequences and Lau’s well-played master of deductive reasoning. He’s always been a fascinating and charismatic actor to watch, most notably in Johnnie To’s Mad Detective, and that trend continues here. Tse’s charisma is more of the smoldering type, but he does fine work with a physically demanding role.
While the look, acting and action sequences are all quite good, Law’s script starts to wobble in the third act. The big shootout is fantastically exciting and well executed, but as the mystery is explained the previously smart thrills start to unravel. An inexplicable scene featuring Dalu hanging from a great height by one hand serves a later purpose, but it makes no sense considering that the inspector is both intelligent and has two hands. It simply rings false, and that’s a feeling that unfortunately returns during the big reveal. None of this ruins The Bullet Vanishes, but the casing is definitely left more than a little tarnished.
Ip Man: The Final Fight (Hong Kong)
Ip Man (Anthony Wong) arrives alone in Hong Kong in 1949 after surviving the war but losing two daughters to starvation in the process. His wife and son stay behind in China while he looks for employment, but when the job search proves fruitless he reluctantly takes on students interested in learning his uncommon style called Wing Chun. His only stipulation is that there be no sign as that implies a business which means he’d need excuses to turn people away when he’d rather just tell people “no.” As the years pass he sees the city move through turbulent times, social unrest and a bottomed-out economy. Through it all though he remains little more than a man and far from the legend he’s become since.
That last bit actually represents both this film’s unique nature and its biggest issue. Donnie Yen has shown us a larger than life Ip Man who represented honor and integrity but who could also take on ten high level fighters without breaking a sweat. Save for an epic brawl towards the film’s end there’s not really much of that here. Instead we see the drama and hardships of life in post-war Hong Kong that range from corruption and unemployment to a harrowing scene where friends of Ip Man are forced to admit having sold their infant son so they could afford to feed their remaining five children. Wong still gets his hands dirty, and looks surprisingly good doing it too thanks in part to fight choreographer Xiong Xin-xin, but aside from the aforementioned third act clash the fights here lack energy or real stakes to make them feel compelling. For the only Ip Man movie to feature the word “fight” in the title the paucity of quality fights just feels wrong.
Director Herman Yau‘s film may not be action packed, but it still looks quite good thanks to a beautifully recreated mid-century city that feels alive with the bustling sights and sounds of the period. His camera moves gracefully through the streets and shows a great affinity for crane shots, but not even they can hide the film’s lack of urgency. The other factor is that for an Ip Man movie there really isn’t enough of a focus on Ip Man. He’s the core here, but quite a bit of time is spent on his students’ lives and issues too. That’s really the story being told here, the one about Ip Man’s effect on others including his son, his students and in the film’s best segment (aside from the big fight scene set against a raging storm) his peer, Master Ng (Eric Tsang). The two have a lively bit of sparring but also share time and conversation with each other that reveals their humanity and strength in less pugilistic ways. Ultimately, the biggest criticism against Ip Man: The Final Fight is one of false advertising, but if you can accept that this is not Yen’s Ip Man you’ll find a well made and somewhat interesting take on the legend’s later years.
The Last Tycoon (Hong Kong/China)
Du Yuesheng (played by Chow Yun-fat in the elder years and Huang Xiaoming as a teen) was a high level gangster in early 20th century Shanghai, but his path to the top was a convoluted and bloody one. Du is introduced to the world of crime after being unjustly incarcerated and subsequently rescued by a corrupt cop named Maozi (Francis Ng), and he quickly works his way up the ranks thanks to his smarts and willingness to kill anyone who gets in his way. His journey is complicated though by competing crime lords, the impending Japanese invasion and the love of two very different women.
Director Wong Jing’s gangster film is the rare case of a story and movie that actually should have been longer than it is. A fairly epic tale is packed tightly into a two hour runtime, and certain parts of the story end up feeling rushed and short-changed. The most affected areas are Du’s history and what is essentially the heart of the film, the two great loves of his life. The back and forth between young and old Du prevents a solid narrative cohesion, and it also gets in the way of the film’s dueling romances. One is a childhood sweetheart while the other is seemingly a second choice, but Du’s actions and reactions to their respective fates are clearly meant to be more emotional than they actually are. More time with them could have only benefited the film’s emotional aims.
But what it lacks in dramatic punch the film almost makes up for in slick, bloody and chaotically choreographed action sequences. Street fights and shootouts are the norm, but the adrenaline-fueled highpoint is a set-piece that plays out against a Japanese bombing raid decimating Shanghai. Chow looks and plays the part of gun-wielding gangster like he hasn’t missed a beat since his John Woo days in The Killer and Hard-Boiled, and Sammo Hung also gets to strut his (still impressive) stuff as a competing crime lord who forms an alliance with Du. The Last Tycoon won’t become a new classic, but it’s still an exciting and beautifully-shot slice of China’s oft-neglected history.