The piece below was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the art being covered in this piece wouldn't exist.
The 22nd annual New York Asian Film Festival takes place between July 14 and July 30. For more information, click here.
Once again, festival season is upon us and once again for this writer, that means a return trip to the New York Asian Film Festival, inarguably one of the highlights of my cinemagoing year, and a not-so-hidden gem in the field of Tri-State, international film programming.
Presumably, you all already know how festivals work, and the proceedings are well under way, so let’s just dive right in, shall we…?
The Festival has been experimenting in the past few years with adding new formats and unique showcases for new and innovative Asian filmmakers, and one of the more recent additions is a short film program. I was lucky enough to start off this years’ festival experience with the live action shorts, and here is a decidedly less than short recap of what I saw:
A slight yet amusing sketch about a scam artist and his hapless son and their misadventures with a memory erasing device. Writer-director Le Lam Viens’ Fix Anything invests its wacky sci-fi proceedings with a fun antic energy and no small amount of style. Le Hong Giang gives an enjoyably over the top performance as the ever-hustlin’ dad, and there’s a jaunty score by Felipe Salas Sandoval, but don’t expect much more than a swift and entertaining 15-minute romp.
It’s always nice when a thing can surprise you without involving a twist, and there was a moment in A Roadside Banquet that seems to come completely out of left field. This odd little venture about a little girl coming to terms with no longer being the center of attention after her little brother is born, set against the backdrop of a massive family gathering, mixes surreality and heart in ways I was not expecting, and which proved most delightful.
Before then, there exists a certain amount of tension, a sense of unease lingering just beneath the joviality of everyone, that leads the viewer to wonder where this could be going, how things could very quickly, and very tragically, go wrong. It could potentially be a spoiler to say that nothing goes wrong. But I’m only comfortable revealing that because it feels just about impossible for anyone to predict what happens instead.
But instead of running the risk of saying too much about a short that delights in its unexpected corners, I’ll simply say that I like the way writer-director Peiqi Peng gestures towards a sweet, if slightly corny Hallmark commercial style ending, only to subvert it with a beat that’s slightly thornier and more ambiguous without totally invalidating the sense of catharsis. And also that the dad’s ponytail is absolutely unforgivable, even before he’s implied to be kind of a knob.
It’s really going to sound like damning with faint praise, but the best part of Infant is how short it is. A premise this simple has been used as the backdrop of roughly a hundred thousand introspective indies, and generally fails to validate its own length. But the pace at which Infant unfolds means the things that might drag in a longer narrative speed by; no sooner has Marat placed his ad than he gets a call from an old friend of his mom’s, who he meets in the next scene, who gives him his mom’s phone number, which he calls in the next scene, which… you get the idea.
Instead of lingering in the spaces where a longer film might plod from point to point, writer-director Karash Zhanyshou takes an almost impressionistic approach, which gives the film a texture that, again, would most likely prove indulgent in a longer work. And the advantages serve not only the story, but the lead performance as well: giving what is, by virtue, an inward, recessive performance, Uulu is able to assay his character with a quiet sadness that works in the moment, but is by its nature a bit one note. It’s an unmistakably good performance of a character with whom keeping a more extended company might have had diminishing returns.
In fact, it’s really only the ending that lets down the fort, when Marat receives a visit from Aziza. There’s a moment where Aziza makes a request, the implications of which are fairly obvious. And if the film had ended right there, it would have made for an impactful and thought provoking character study. But instead it goes on to make things thuddingly explicit, very much to the detriment of the overall film. A little more trust in the audience would have gone a long way.
Trusting the audience, as it happens, is actually one of virtues that make Maryam Mirs’ Sweet Refuge such a pleasurable experience. And this is no small feat, taking into account how firmly it sits on a foundation rife with potential for didacticism; grand, sweeping statements about the old ways versus modernism, about cultural assimilation, about technology. So what proves most delightful is there’s an inherent decency and kindness to all the characters that defy any attempts to make a statement. The conflict between an old-fashioned Syrian immigrant baker (Laith Nakli) and a social media savvy Indian baker whose treats trend towards the vegan, gluten free, sugar free side of things could very easily have become a metaphor, but in the end it’s about people, and human connection, and is all the stronger for it.
An entirely different approach to the theme of human connection can be seen on display in Neo Portraits. In the year 2046 (Wong Kar Wai reference? You be the judge), a teen still mourning the recent death of his mother, must deal with that loss in a time where companies have convinced people that digital recreations of their dearly departed are basically the same as them never having left.
Of all the films in this collection, this is the one that feels the most like it could be successfully expanded into a full-length film. But that’s probably to be expected, given the possibilities inherent in its high concept, science fiction premise. Indeed, one of the prime assets of the film is how well it fleshes out its hypothetical near future with subtle world building touches. There’s a moment where a class of students is asked to share their memories of a recently passed acquaintance, and the way they start gesturing at an invisible menu is equal parts funny, sad, and chilling. Even as it traffics in some very heavy themes, coming in at a mere 20 minutes allows filmmaker Gazebo to dash off an appealing sketch as opposed to an in-depth portrait (sorry), and the overall experience is enhanced by such a lightness of spirit.
Not quite a horror film, but horrific in its ruthless sense of plausibility, Gwai Lou’s bleak and unsettling yet effective Malaysian entry Kumbang casts a very different pall than any other short film in this collection. It tells the story of two hardscrabble kids (Syahim Rafiq Syazwi, Muhd Ikhliel Amree) in search of internet fame and fortune, and its (arguable karmic, given the opening) cruelties feel more realistic than one would want to admit. Syazwi and Amree are very good, and the music by Annabel Tiu is fantastic, but… yeesh, man.
On a lighter note…
Despite being very entertained, I’m afraid I don’t actually have all that much to say about Lee Seung-ju’s darkly comic romp Resellers, in the sense that it’s hard to write about comedies without ruining the best parts. But it really brings the laughs, and carries itself off with no small amount of skill and dexterity; in fact, it’s so fleet and deft in its screwball execution that they almost trick you into buying the idea that there’s a proper code of conduct for selling cigarettes to high school students, before both pulling the rug out and twisting the knife.
In fact, in any other collection, a short like Resellers would probably be the clear winner in terms of fun. But as I’ve mentioned more than once already, this batch of shorts has a remarkably high baseline of quality. Which is to say that when it comes to sheer, unadulterated entertainment value, there’s no question about it: All Your Fault, Producer takes it in an absolute walk.
Ga Eun Kim plays the producer in question, a long-suffering set presence who seems to take the blame for every mishap that occurs on set, regardless of her actual culpability. But when an unexpected event (which unfolds with hilarious abruptness) threatens not just the production, but their lives, all eyes turn to her as their potential savior/willing sacrifice. After all, that’s what a producer is for, right…?
All Your Fault is kind of the platonic ideal of this sort of thing; it gets in, crams in all the gags it can think of, and gets out with a piece of ruthless comeuppance that would land very differently if the film lasted long enough for you to care about the characters. As it stands, they get to be very funny cartoons, some of whom die in very amusing ways, and that, as they say, is that.
Readers who have any familiarity with my work, or perhaps just movies and TV in general, know that 99% of all child actors are awful. But there’s enough evidence in this series of shorts to lead me to wonder if the inherent awfulness of child actors is a decidedly American affliction. All told, five of the ten shorts have prominent roles for one or more children/teen performers, and there’s not a single weak link among them.
But perhaps the most impressive child performance in any of the five, and possibly all the films, might be Taranom Kazemi’s deeply conflicted Ava in Mohamed KamalAlavi’s piercing, resonant Pufferfish.
A young girl in Iran, Ava spends the majority of her time at a birthday party of her cousin Pooya silently agonizing between the things that bring her happiness and the idea of what constitutes being a “good girl,” as represented by visions of a trio of scolding old ladies capped with angel wings, a recurring motif that starts out knowingly comical and not-so-gradually shifts into pointedly oppressive. The interesting tact that Pufferfish takes is to internalize the conflict; refreshingly, Ava’s parents and the people around her bristle against the restrictions being ‘advised’ for them; and, to a person, vocally encourage her to engage in the things that bring her joy. And though it flirts with darkness, in the end it pulls back from the brink, valuing quotidian experiential filmmaking over polemicals, and catharsis over didacticism. It shouldn’t be a rarity that this is the case. But it kind of is, for the west. And watching this, one can’t help but feel that it’s kind of our loss.
And lastly, I’m not going to pretend that I didn’t deflate in the opening moments of Will You Look At Me, which consisted of narration over home movie looking footage, detailing the speakers’ decision to spend the summer in his hometown making a movie. To all the world, it looked like yet another indulgent, navel-gazing documentary. Fine if you like that sort of thing, but it tends to leave me cold.
So I wound up shocked at just how quickly my attitude went from ‘just get through it’ to it being an early contender for highlight of the festival. And that was before I found out it wasn’t even a documentary at all.
The short details the efforts of a queer young filmmaker (Yunxue Kim) to connect with his mother (Kangmin Huang), who suffice to say, does not approve of his sexuality or his chosen profession in the arts. And yeah, I was fooled. I’m not even sure if director Shuli Huang intended to fool anyone, but that first conversation, where he methodically deconstructs his mother’s every argument against his choices, while still utterly failing to make her see where her blind inability to sever herself from tradition is the direct cause of her own unhappiness, just felt so real that I immediately bought in. And he caps it off with an edit that creates an absolutely perfect visual metaphor.
You’d think discovering it was all staged would be a disappointment. And yet, if anything, it makes things all the more impressive. It’s not a perfect film; the second confrontation, even before I knew it was autofiction, felt a little too “reality TV”; it was entirely plausible as an exchange, but the hysterical nature of it seemed a disservice to the subtlety of the earlier scenes. It simply felt like too much of a big climactic moment.
Which… whoops, it actually was.
Still, there are worse problems a film can have than not sticking the landing, and Will You Look At Me manages to avoid all of them while using a format where the margin of error tends to be very, very large. I’m sure I’ll see other great films in this years festival, but I’ll be surprised if one surprises me quite as much as this one did.
Then again… that’s kind of the point, isn’t it…? It’s certainly the reason I keep coming back year after year: the ever present possibility that I’m going to see something new and exciting, have the opportunity to enter worlds I’ve never experienced before. These ten shorts, all of them quite good in their own unique ways, are as solid an example of this as I can imagine. More proof, if any was needed, that a short visit can be just as enjoyable as an extended stay.