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 first glimpse into the films of NYAFF 2013 explores three movies that share an affinity for sex and all the joys and troubles those little deaths bring.
The Concubine (South Korea)
Life during Korea’s Joseon Dynasty was no picnic for women, or the poor, or anyone not currently king, and Hwa-yeon (Jo Yeo-jeong) knows this better than most. She’s in love with Kwon yoo (Kim Min-joon), but her family’s status means her father must find any way possible to appease the king. That way is in the form of offering her up as a concubine, and as she’s taken violently from Kwon’s arms something else is taken from him as well. (Hint: it’s shaped like a penis.) She’s sent into the palace to serve the king’s wishes, and five years later she’s mother to the heir to the throne. The king’s step-mother is none too happy with this arrangement though and sets about some truly Shakespearean machinations to knock off anyone who isn’t her birth son in an effort to get him into power. Things do not go well for anyone. And I do mean anyone.
As period pieces go you can do far worse than The Concubine. Jo anchors the film with her heartfelt and extremely sexual performance as a woman wronged by pretty much everyone around her, and she earns sympathy by virtue of her forced situation. She’s the film’s heart, for better or worse, and she offers the most human character within miles of the palace. Others lack her compassion, but they’re just as delightful to watch thanks to their near endless capacity and desire for screwing each other over. The deliciously wicked step mom (Park Ji-young) and her initially emotionally stunted son (Kim Dong-wook) offer up some of the film’s more twisted and devious plot turns
Director Kim Dae-seung’s approach to making a period soap opera is to fill it with flesh, blood and heavy dollops of drama, but he also has a very special ingredient up his sleeve. Lots and lots of grisly genital shenanigans. (I didn’t say it was a nice ingredient.) The high degree of violence and nudity help make the film an entertaining glimpse into history, but their at times guignol-like nature diminish some of the dramatic power the story might otherwise have had as it touches on ideas of power and sexual politics. That and an overly hastened first act keep the film from being a complete success, but there’s still a lot of sumptuous detail to feast your eyes and other organs upon.
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A Muse aka Eungyo (South Korea)
Lee Juk-yo (Park Hae-il) is an accomplished poet spending his later years as mentor and teacher to a younger apprentice named Seo Ji-woo (Kim Mu-yeol) who takes care of the older man in exchange for literary guidance. The student has just published his first novel, and it’s become an unexpected success resulting in an artificially inflated ego. Around that same time, Lee discovers a teenage girl named Han Eun-gyo (Kim Go-eun) sleeping on his porch and in need of a part time job. He hires her as a once a week housekeeper, but slowly, inevitably, a questionable bond develops between the old man and the young girl. Seo, discontented with his own success for various reasons, sticks his nose (among other things) into the already complicated relationship leading to someone’s unhappy ending.
Writer/director Jung Ji-woo’s film seems at first glance to be a Lolita-inspired tale designed primarily to titillate, but while it apparently caused quite the uproar in its homeland the drama here has far more to offer than simple perversion. (Not that there’s anything wrong with simple perversion.) Rather than be a story about lust or obsession, this is a sweet and affecting tale about age, wisdom and the decisions we make with our heads, hearts and nether regions. It surprises more than once on the narrative side and never stops being visually appealing thanks to cinematographer Kim Tae-kyung’s eye for the soft, forbidden beauty of Eungyo’s neck or bare feet and the changing seasons in Lee’s yard and nearby woods.
Eun-gyo arriving at the house in middle of the night and soaked from rain sets up all kinds of expectations, but instead of going for the obvious lasciviousness we’re treated to acts of kindness, comfort and bashful curiosity. His interests are clear, but it’s her vitality and possibility that tempts him most. Of course, all of that said, the film is still more than a little bit exploitative. Eungyo’s age makes the proceedings somewhat uncomfortable at times, but the script, direction and above all the performances of Kim Mu-yeol and Kim Go-eun make their desires, both spoken and silent, more delicate than dirty. He’s playing an older man beneath prosthetic makeup, but the effect is more seamless than not aside from the occasionally visible attempt at playing “old.” Those slight missteps aside, A Muse remains a tender, knowing, and yes, provocative look at the yearnings in us all.
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Sarah (Yam Concepcion) lives with her overbearing father who rarely lets a moment go by without reminding her that she can’t keep a boyfriend to save her life. That constant rejection and a desperation for something new leads her to meet and quickly begin dating Riki (John James Uy). Once a reality show contestant experiencing his fifteen minutes of fame, Riki now finds himself unable to level up on the scoreboard of fame. Instead he models sports equipment for a home shopping channel to support his wife Regine (Max Eigenmann) and young daughter. Sarah knows nothing about his family of course, and he’s not interested in filling her in on the details, but when the women become aware of each other Riki’s real life threatens to become a reality show of a very different kind.
The story here is far from original, and that obvious nature through much of the running time hurts the overall experience, but there’s still an undeniable and eminently watchable appeal to be found. Part of it is the raw sexuality on display, most evident in Sarah and Riki’s first physical encounter. What starts against a wall slowly and seductively works its way up the stairs allowing time for a brief but steamy minute of pantsless pleasuring, and it’s definitely not the kind of scene you’ll see in a mainstream love triangle. But beyond the sexual the film manages to almost nail down the little things people allow to rule and guide their search for happiness. The needs of loved ones, the nagging voices of others and thoughts on the proverbial greener grass next door are well presented, but they’re not allowed to simply tell the story on their own.
Director Erik Matti (who also developed the story) is at his best when dealing with the sexual and the mundane, but too often his attempts at structured plot fall a bit flat. At one point the film veers off into an unnecessary subplot involving loan sharks and hit men when the dramatic implications could have been handled far better by focusing on the three central characters alone. True, the trio’s acting abilities vary, but at least two of them are more than capable of delivering well enough on the emotional front. (Sorry Uy.) The film loses steam when these elements are forced into play, and the same can unfortunately be said for the movie’s ending. It almost feels like Matti had this ending in mind and built the story around it instead of leading up to it as the finale feels neither earned nor natural. If nothing else the film acts as a strong introduction for Concepcion’s vivacious personality, and I look forward to seeing more of her in the future.