The second annual 20th anniversary New York Asian Film Festival takes place from July 15 to July 31. For more informations on lineup and screenings, click here

If one squints, you can just about see how the title Terrorizers applies to the movie its attached to. But it’s an odd choice at best for a movie with its particular set of interests. Because despite what the title might seem to imply, this is not a movie that has anything to do with scary spooky stuff or hip postmodern suicide bombers. It’s a sorrowful and unsettling portrait of loneliness and obsession in the digital age, and while no better name comes to mind, one can’t help but feel like such a sensationlist title doesn’t exactly help sell what is a thoughtful, of downbeat, night at the movies.

While the film reveals itself in its own time and in its own way, it starts out as something like a romance.

It is outside a wedding that Yu Fang (Moon Lee) meets, or rather is reintroduced to Xiao Zhang (Austin Lin), a friendly cook who has carried a torch since their one-off date some time ago, where he appears to have cut a rather different figure. At any rate, this encounter seems to go better than the first, and it isn’t long before something like a courtship ensues. Yu Fang is an actress, a reveal that takes Xiao Zhang by surprise. “You know nothing about me”, she teases playfully. Or does she?

The burgeoning romance creates tension in her household, where her father, a politician, has been pushing her towards getting together with Ming Liang (JC Lin), the son of a wealthy benefactor. But it’s safe to say that’s a non-starter, if for no other reason than Ming Liang is a world class creep.

But we’ll come back to that guy, on account of I’d rather not deal with him until absolutely necessary.

Instead let us turn our attention to Monica (Annie Chen), a struggling actress in debt to her ex-boyfriend, three months late on the rent, and with a past she is trying to put behind her. She gets an offer that could solve her money problems, but would put her back in a place she doesn’t want to be, cashing in on a fame she fears she’ll never live down.

Someone who would kill for that kind of exposure is Kiki (Yao Ai Ning), an aspiring cosplayer who wants to move to Japan to make it big, but for now settles for breaking into private buildings with her photographer/Friend Zone resident Billy (Cheng Ko), staging sexy photo shoots and making stupid prank phone calls. Kiki has a lot of ideas about sexiness, but little concept of actual sex, a blissful ignorance that marks her out as the child she pretends not to be and leads her to heartbreak in more ways than one over the course of the film.

And finally, reluctantly, we return to Ming Liang, just… a wildly unpleasant person to be around. A perfect storm of rich, unsupervised and alienated with a tenuous grasp of reality, there’s a good chance in any given scene that if the camera pans over, Ming Liang is there, lurking in the shadows.

Without giving too much away, he is responsible for a rupture in the film that occurs towards the end of the first act, and from there the film expands out in all directions, slowly revealing that we can never truly know people, or the butterfly effects of their actions.

Even in saying this, it’s a concern that I’m giving the game away, as it were; the pleasures of the movie (if ‘pleasure’ is the appropriate word) is when the film starts making connections, recontextualizing other moments by showing them from a variety of perspectives, and the unseen events that led up to them. It could come off as a series of twists and turns, but feels somehow more than just a series of puzzle pieces, sliding into place; ultimately, it’s less about the what than the how and the why.

Though the film is more or less an ensemble piece, Yu Fang is the axis upon which it all spins; she’s the first person we see as the film fades in, and in the end it’s her story we hope to see turn out okay. And in the role, Moon Lee, who added a palpable sense of melancholy to her comedic performance in the festivals earlier My Best Friends Breakfast, impressively finds different gears for a character that shares a surprising amount of similarities. In both roles, she maintains a certain amount of interiority and hides herself from the other characters. The primary difference is in Breakfast, she hides from the characters but not the audience, and here she keeps us both at arms length. It’s an impressive balancing act from a promising up-and-comer.

JC Lin matches her beat for beat, though towards entirely different ends; his is a clammy, committed performance of a deeply disturbed individual. There’s an argument to be made that his fascination with VR porn and violent video games is straight out of the Columbine Cliche 101 textbook. And it really does border on ludicrous just how often they go to the whole ‘creepin’ in the dark’ thing, like he’s a Tiger Beat Michael Myers or something. But for all that Liang comes perilously close to being written like a slasher movie monster, there’s something uncomfortably real about his blankness; the discomfort in his own skin and the numbness feels real. And his encounters with an aging, alcoholic masseuse (well played by Ding Ning) give Lin notes to play that allow him to be more than just a pathetic monster.

When Terrorizers started, certain choices made me worry the film was going to be a heavy-handed statement on life in the digital age, the type of ‘Won’t somebody think of the children and their social media accounts?!?’ type of endeavor that feels hand-wringing and hopefully out of touch. And truth be told, there are times when it comes dangerously close to being exactly that. But the performances and the clever structure go a long way towards giving a thing that could have felt didactic in extremis a pulse, and an emotional impact that lingers long after the film is over. It’s not always the most easy watch, but it is a rewarding one.

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