New York Asian Film Festival ‣ 野蛮人入侵

The 20th Anniversary New York Asian Film Festival took place August 6th through August 22nd. For more details, please click here.

There is a moment early on in the cinema focused shell game that is Barbarian Invasion where Roger Lee (Pete Teo), an aging filmmaker, and his lead actress Moon discuss his upcoming idea for a new project and she jokingly suggests he’s going to make a Hong Sang-soo movie.

His actual idea is very different, and yet one of the best unspoken gags in the film is that in the end, they’re both basically right.

Moon Lee is a single mother, recently divorced, roped into making her acting comeback in her friends latest project, a remake of an American action movie. He insists that she do all her own stunts, and so she begins training with Master Loh (James Lee, who also receives a credit as the films action director).

And so the first third of the movie concerns itself with the gradual evolution of Moon Lee from weary, unconfident amateur to physical dynamo, almost as if we’re watching a training montage in real time.

This is all the more impressive a feat when you realize that Tan Chui Mui not only is the star of this film, but the writer and director, and that she is in practically every scene in the film. And what could very easily feel like the ultimate vanity project in the wrong hands becomes a rather clever bit of cinematic gamesmanship in her capable hands, one which she grounds in a real sense of character.

For the Moon Lee we meet at the start of the film barely seems capable of anything she will accomplish in the film to follow. Introduced being dragged by her son Yu Zhou (Nik Hadiff Zani, an adorable nightmare), she just seems weary to her very bones. She exhibits little to no capacity to control her child, who runs wild and defies her at pretty much every turn, though in that utterly innocent way that feels very true to life.

It seems impossible that Moon will be able to balance her training with her parental duties; looking after Yu Zhou seems a full-time endeavor. But what at first seems like a disaster turns out to be an unexpected resolution and soon Moon is able to devote herself full time to the development of her new role.

If the movie was just the trail of that evolution, it would be an interesting and rewarding enough experience. But the path of quality filmmaking never did run smoothly, and so inevitably complications pop up in the form of producers who have demands that might push Moon out of the flick entirely.

And then things take a turn that you have to see to believe.

This is all that should be said about Barbarian Invasion going in, as part of the entertainment value is learning just what the game is in real time. It’s not necessarily a movie of twists and turns, but it does go to some unexpected places that raise some interesting questions about the actual nature of what we’ve been watching up to now and what we are watching as it unfolds. And as both writer, director, and star, Tan Chui Mui handles all three aspects not with the postmodern insouciance of a film school brat but the studied thoughtfulness of an experienced veteran

Difficult to say if ‘studied thoughtfulness’ is the sort of praise that gets butts into theaters; I’m worried I’m making this sound like some arthouse wankfest. It’s not; it’s too mercurial for that. What it is, is an inventive, witty, offbeat, occasionally thrilling work that recognizes movies for what they are: a magic trick that requires an inordinate amount of effort to get just right.

And no, I don’t know what the title means. But I’m sure it’s very clever.


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