NYAFF 2019: Festival Wrap-Up and Secret Screening

The New York Asian Film Festival took place from June 28 to July 14, 2019. For more information, click here.

For those of you paying very close attention… the secret screening will be the last of my dispatches from the 2019 New York Asian Film Festival.

But it was not the final film of the 2019 New York Asian Film Festival.

The Closing Night movie was White Storm 2, a pretty good action movie that was perfectly fine as finales go. But perfectly fine didn’t seem like a good enough ending to this year’s NYAFF experience, and so here we are, ending on a note that feels like a slightly better encapsulation of everything that makes this festival special, and an annual highlight in my filmgoing life.

Though one wouldn’t necessarily know it if they were just casual attendees, this year’s New York Asian Film Festival quietly underwent a transition behind the scenes. After 17 years, Subway Cinema, the founders, primary programmers — and since 2010, co-producers with Lincoln Center — stepped down, leaving it in the more than capable care of the New York Asian Film Foundation.

As someone who has been fortunate enough to cover the festival for several years now, the transition was seamless, and the festival was as wide ranging and entertaining as ever. But as the festival came to a close, it had become clear that something was indeed a little different.

The New York Asian Film Foundation came out swinging, and there was a certain swagger, an ambition to experiment and try new things.

For starters, there was February’s first ever winter showcase.

Then, in the summer edition, there was the one time only film/concert experience that was Kokdu.

Following in short order was the advanced theatrical screening of the the first episode of The Terror: Infamy, a bold acknowledgment of the ever-thinning line between television and cinema.

But most importantly for the sake of this particular story, there was the Secret Screening, one of the grandest traditions of the NYAFF, given an unexpected and extremely welcome twist.

It was no surprise going in that this year’s secret screening would include a live performance by Shaolin Jazz, the musical collaboration between Gerald Watson and DJ 2-Tone Jones; it was certainly highlighted enough in all the promotion leading up to the festival. But to find out what exactly that meant was, for me at least, the best kind of mystery and an opportunity I wasn’t going to pass up under any circumstances.

(For those as ignorant as I was concerning Shaolin Jazz and their Can I Kick It screenings, more information can be found here. Now, is there a certain amount of irony in the idea that as a Marylander that lives roughly 20 minutes outside the district, this has been going on in pretty much my backyard for years and I had to travel 200 miles out of my way to find out about it? Yes. Yes, there is. But let us not dwell on such things…)

So this part doesn’t exactly have much to do with the film being screened as such (we’ll get there soon enough), but if you’ll indulge me I would like to take a moment to pay tribute to the kind of off-the-cuff, unexpected moment that makes these sorts of experiences so special.

The screening did not start on time, which is certainly not an unprecedented film festival experience. But the circumstances for this particular delay turned out to be decidedly unique:

It was the night of the New York City blackout.

Luckily, the SVA theater was out of the affected area, but it understandably caused a fair amount of confusion and chaos behind the scenes, though those of us waiting in anticipation in the cool, air conditioned luxury of the Silas Auditorium were pretty well ignorant of the madness going on outside.

And as the minutes ticked on, the notoriously good-natured film fans that populated the theater never grew restless, never grew cranky. We all waited patiently for the sort of singular experience that the NYAFF crew goes to great lengths to provide.

Eventually, an announcement was made apprising us of the situation, and that the start would be delayed to allow those poor unfortunates who got caught in the blackout the chance to still show up. And as a way of thanking us for our patience, the festival heads personally took it upon themselves to hand out bottles of Tiger Beer (a longtime festival sponsor) to anybody who wanted one.

Now I know what you’re wondering, dear reader: did our venerable author partake of such a rare opportunity and imbibe before the viewing?

I refuse to dignify that with a response; I happen to be a professional.

At any rate, sooner or later, the show must go on, and so it did.

But before the big reveal of this evening’s entertainment, there was still the matter of the presentation of the NYAFFs’ main competition awards as selected by this year’s jury, consisting of Well Go USA Entertainment CEO Doris Pfardrescher; Dong Yue, director of last year’s moody noir The Looming Storm; and Tim League, head honcho of the Alamo Drafthouse chain of theaters.

For those keeping score at home, the winners were:

SPECIAL MENTION: Five Million Dollar Life, directed by Moon Sung Ho, screenplay by Naomi Hiruta

RUNNER-UP: Another Child, written and directed by Yoon-seok Kim

GRAND PRIZE: Lying To Mom, written and directed by Katsumi Nojiri

I… saw exactly none of these. But congratulations to the filmmakers all!

And with that, the lights dimmed and the revelry began.

I believe I’ve mentioned it before, but I rarely feel more at home in a movie theater than I do when the audiences at NYAFF cheer at the onscreen appearance of the Golden Harvest logo.

And they always cheer.

These are my people.

Having no idea what I was in for past the fact that it would be an old school martial arts flick (in keeping with this year’s much-deserved feting of Yuen Woo-Ping), I was delighted to discover it was one that I inexplicably hadn’t managed to catch before: the 1993 Jet Li /Michelle Yeoh vehicle Tai Chi Master.

A cheer rippled throughout the audience, many of whom were already clearly familiar.

Unlike me, they knew what they were in for.

As for the movie itself, there isn’t much that needs to be said; it’s outstanding. As a delivery system for amazingly choreographed, wildly inventive, relentlessly jaw-dropping fight sequences, it remains a towering achievement, unsurpassed even over a quarter century after its release.

More than anything, this was about the experience, and bearing witness to the way Shaolin Jazz synced itself up to and played with the film in its musical choices. The way it rode the rhythms of the movie was both hypnotic and a constant delight.

From the very beginning, setting the opening moments of group training against a familiar old school jam (the actual title of which, I might add, was impossible to track down since the only note I took was ‘break of dawn’. In retrospect, this may have been asking too much of Google), there’s a laid back, jazzy serenity to the flow.

It would be fairly difficult for all but the most diligent hip-hop head to recognize every track deployed over the course of the film (and if anyone reading this knows the actual name of the opening track, PLEASE get in touch), but some highlights were my introduction to Black Thoughts ‘Streets’ and Leikeli 47’s ‘2nd Fiddle’ making for a rousing underscore to Michelle Yeoh’s first fight (try to ignore the dubbing); I broke into a mile wide grin upon hearing the opening notes of ‘Shiftee’ by Onyx, gleefully deployed as the enemy army’s theme music; and seeing as how Czarface Meets Metal Face has already secured a spot as one of my favorite albums of 2019, I was tickled pink that ‘Bomb Thrown’ became a repeated motif.

At the end of a breathlessly paced 90 minutes, as we shuffled out of the SVA Theater to the murderous break beat of Shawn Lee & The Soul Surfers’ ‘4-Track Mind’, into the open air of a city that mere hours ago had been in a minor state of emergency, it was impossible not to feel a certain sense of euphoria, tinged with melancholy. All good things must come to an end, of course. The party was almost over. But at least it was one hell of a sendoff.

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