New York: Horror is over, gangsters are losing ground and the latest thing on the film circuit is camp comedy dressed up in electric pink.
This was conclusion drawn from sampling this year's edition of the New York Asian Film Festival, which began on 15 June at the IFC Center in Manhattan. (On July 5, the festival moves to the Japan Society, where it will present several titles as part of the society's "Japan Cuts: Festival of New Japanese Films.")
Now in its sixth year, the scruffy, fan-fueled Asian Film Festival continues to serve as a reliable road map of the new directions in Asian popular cinema. Let the uptown art houses take the latest, made-for-export costume epics, like "Curse of the Golden Flower" or "House of Flying Daggers."
The Asian Film Festival, which seems to run largely on the energy of its chief programmer, the film journalist Grady Hendrix (with sponsorships this year from the video label Dragon Dynasty and Midway Games, among others), has little use for such elevated fare. The house specialty is the disreputable genre film, made for the Asian domestic market with a fast buck in mind.
Asian genre films have been building a steady following in the West ever since Hong Kong cinema broke out of Chinatown theatres during the 1980s and introduced filmmakers like John Woo and Tsui Hark. In the years since, Hong Kong has faded as the primary supplier of popular entertainment in East Asia, done in by financial woes and suspicions of Beijing, while South Korea has emerged as the epicentre of Asian pop culture, both in film and music.
South Korea remains the primary creative force this year, although the genre that led its renaissance -- the brooding, violent crime film -- seems to be in serious decline. Even at last year's festival, the genre seemed to be achieving a classical fullness with Kim Jee-woon's stylish and philosophical "Bittersweet Life," starring the matinee idol Lee Byung-hun as a soulful enforcer right out of Jean-Pierre Melville. But this year's crop betrays dissatisfaction with idealized gangster heroes and a distrust of the form's romantic roots.
Asian films have mostly been free of the curse of self-consciousness that has now turned practically every American movie into a winking takeoff on itself (like the "Pirates of the Caribbean" pictures). But while Hong Kong has not yet succumbed to a camp sensibility (Johnnie To's "Exiled," which will receive one showing in the festival but is set to open theatrically in New York on Aug. 24, is absolutely straight, sincere, classically constructed, and one of the best Asian films in years), South Korea and, with even greater enthusiasm, Japan, have thrown themselves into the postmodern cauldron of self-parody and scrambled styles.
Perhaps as a reaction to half a century of Japanese industrialized cuteness, the "Hello Kitty" empire is only the tip of a pink rhinestone iceberg and films like the Korean "Dasepo Naughty Girls" and the Japanese "Memories of Matsuko" turn sentimental sweetness back on itself, using digital technology to create colouring-book worlds filled with Disneyesque animated birds, Day-Glo environments that seem less real than a dollhouse and characters so saccharine that they make the French "Amelie" (clearly an inspiration for "Matsuko") look like a Kubrick film.
The actors are attractive, rainbow colours abound, other inmates reveal their lovable eccentricities, a magnificent score by Park's regular composer, Jo Yeong-wook, swells in surround sound and yet the film is no endearing fable of nonconformism like "King of Hearts" or "One flew over the cuckoo's nest," but something ambivalent and disquieting. Happiness, Park suggests, is only another way of filtering out reality nee insanity with a smile, but no less essential for that.