NYAFF 2019: In G AFFAIRS, Everyone Suffers

The New York Asian Film Festival took place between June 28 and July 14. For more information, click here.

Congratulations may be in order to the fine folks behind the New York Asian Film Festival; in the field of sheer depravity, G Affairs bows to no one.

You guys, this movie is straight up lurid.

G Affairs is a pitch black mystery with a dark, borderline misanthropic view of humanity and their compulsions. And if all it was was a wallow in sleaze and grim excess, it would be easy to dismiss. But as depraved thrillers go, this happens to be an uncommonly clever and intelligent one.

It may still be too much for most people, but you can’t say that it’s the work of exploitative hacks.

As if to clue you in to the game they’ll be playing right from the start, the film opens with Bach’s №1 in G Major… which we quickly learn is diegetic music being played by a young cello player studiously trying to drown out the rather loud and rather intense humping occurring on an adjacent couch. The humping finally ends, not by way of climax, but by way of a woman’s severed head crashing through his window, causing him to slip and hit his head on the floor, knocking himself out cold.

We quickly meet our murder suspects: Tai, the previously introduced musician, fielding an interrogation while dealing with head injury-induced memory loss; Markus, a teacher so quiet and mild-looking that even if he’s not a murderer you know this motherfucker did something; and freaked out, babbling youth Don, who… well, let’s just say that Don, his place on the spectrum, and how he’s written as a character may tip pretty hard on the ‘problematic’ scale and leave it at that.

Also in the mix are Yu Ting, a sullen schoolgirl mourning the loss of her mother to cancer; her would-be stepmom Mei, a Mainland export first introduced in a flashback where she sidles up to Ting and her mom at a food court and demands abortion money that she was promised by Ting’s father; and a knuckle dragging, wildly corrupt cop nicknamed Master Long, who forces Tai into twisted arrangement and weirdly starts to see himself as a kind of mentor to him.

The connections between all of the characters, of course, are for the audience to discover. Some of them are more obvious than others,

In the abstract, there really isn’t anything that happens here that hasn’t already made it onto the screen in the form of a Law and Order SVU plot point. The key differences, really, are twofold: first, if it was SVU the writers probably would have spread all these plot points out over the course of four or five completely different stories; and two, just by virtue of the FCC being a thing, they would have had to blink.

G Affairs does not blink.

Even when you wish it would.

Assistant director turned first time head honcho Cheuk Pan Lee’s most interesting previous credit is AD on the Hong Kong sections of Steven Soderbergh’s underrated medical thriller Contagion, and with that experience under his belt it’s easy to see how he developed the capacity he displays here at visually orchestrating the various threads; it takes a while for the pieces to fall into place, but Lee shows a preternatural skill at knowing just when and how to weave them together so that the viewer is able to follow along at all times.

The performances are uniformly great, but out of the pack the standouts would have to be Chapman To, in what appears to be his final film role. If so, he certainly goes out with a bang in the role of Master Lung, pretty much foregoing any trace of likability to play a truly bad cop, one who comes off as almost animalistic in his inability to resist any urge no matter how depraved; and Huang Lu as Mei, who enters the story seeming like a hilariously trashy and awful human being and grows more and more sympathetic and tragic with each passing scene. She’s the victim of some of the sickest twists, and Lu manages to not only maintain her dignity, but even find some grace in the endless torrent of suffering that Mei is forced to endure.

I mean, everyone suffers here. But she does it better than most.

It’s easy to imagine some people watching this parade of suffering and wondering: ‘what’s the point?’ And if it were merely a wallow in the sordid side of Hong Kong life, I’d be inclined to agree. But there’s absolutely an intelligence here, a sense of filmmakers having ideas to explore and showing left field signs of occasional playfulness. Granted, the classical music business is ‘Pseudo Intellectualism 101’, but rare is the thriller of this nature that manages to slip in multiple references to 2001 to help illustrate a philosophical point; the art of Gustav Klimt features prominently and even the title itself is partially explicated by a structural game the film plays where scenes are bracketed by thematic connections made in the form of words that start with the letter ‘G’.

Which means that in a very real sense, this film plays out not unlike like the most warped episode of Sesame Street ever…

Ultimately, G Affairs is not for a movie for everybody. It doesn’t feel the need to water down its darkest impulses, and dares viewers to follow it into the abyss. In the end, it’s a film with pity for (some of) its characters, but absolutely no mercy whatsoever.

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