Ghosts, Guts, & Grief: 2009 New York Asian Film Festival

This year’s New York Asian Film Festival (through July 5) is, as ever, a cornucopia of surprises — a collective punch to the gut and a scold to all other festivals less ballsy, diverse, and important. This is not a fanboy event, despite what titles like Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl might initially lead you to believe. Drawing chiefly from South Korea, Japan, and Hong Kong, the films range with delightful incongruity from the romantic and sentimental to the perverse and avant-garde. Watching all 50-plus entries this year proved unfeasible (surprise), but I’ve attempted to separate some of the wheat from the chaff.

Written By (Hong Kong, 2009) – When a car accident takes her father, Molly (Mia Yan) writes a novel in which he survives as a fictional character. Within that novel, Dad writes yet another book in which he perishes and the family does not. It’s a bravura if at times goofy display of narrative legerdemain that’s invoked deserved comparisons to Charlie Kauffman. Writer/director Wai Ka-Fai is best known stateside for his collaborations with director Johnnie To (Fulltime Killer, Mad Detective), but this solo effort abandons his gangster and comedy past to explore something altogether unfamiliar: a family drama about ghosts.

Fish Story (Japan, 2009) – This cheerily chaotic picture is shot through with profound sympathy for also-rans. In 1975, a proto-punk band records one great, ahead-of-its-time number, only to break up and fade into obscurity. Thirty-seven years later, the song saves the world from total annihilation — though not without the help of a child prodigy, a martial arts savant, and a milquetoast who learns to stand up for himself. The first movie about punk rock that deserves to be called “heart-warming.”

Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl (Japan, 2009) – Imagine a jejune teen comedy on the order of Bring It On cross-bred with Evil Dead 2 and you might get something akin to VGvs.FG. Gore and comedy don’t usually go hand-in-glove, but co-directors Naoyuki Tomomatsu and Yoshiro Nishimura make a fair bid to reverse the trend. Warring cliques of school girls behead each other and worse, all for the love of the class hunk.

Magazine Gap Road (Hong Kong, 2007) – A baroquely stylized thriller about a prostitute-turned-art-dealer trying to rescue a former colleague from the trade. First-time helmer Nick Chin shows a fine eye for composition here, adding a painterly flourish to everything from an iridescent skyline to a forlorn prison-yard tree. His Hong Kong isn’t the noisome welter of confusion we’re accustomed to seeing, but a serene vista which his characters live — literally, metaphorically — high above.

House (Japan, 1977) – A revival screening, this 1977 camp horror classic has the antic frenzy of a Murakami painting come explosively to life. The highly incidental plot — a bunch of school girls get knocked off by an evil step-mom type — is just an excuse for director Nobuhiku Kobayashi to accumulate as many outrageous effects shots as possible. Faces melt and pianos eat children.

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