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Buzzing Off New York Asian Film Festival Excitement With Man From Nowhere, Karate Robot Zabugar, Machete Maidens Unleashed and More!

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Column by Scott Green

The New York Asian Film Festival ( at Lincoln Center July 1 - 14, at Japan Society July 7 - 10 ) is turning 10 years old. Presents include a Takashi Miike World Premiere and the long-awaited animated epic based on Osamu Tezuka's life of Buddha. Special guests include Tsui Hark, Ryoo Seung-Wan, Su Chao-pin, Takayuki Yamada, Tak Sakaguchi and many more.

For ticket and scheduling information, check out this post.

And, we're fortunate to be able to discuss some of the films being screened.

TROUBLESHOOTER (Korea, 2010, New York Premiere, 99 minutes)

Dirty politics and dirty banking could be a foundation for a resonant thriller. Here, they aren’t. Troubleshooter is an "ok" script. Not so much "ok" as in alright, but "ok" as in the reaction to what occurs in the movie is "ok!" This is a hugely convoluted man-falsely-accused pot boiler, complete with a daughter, dead wife, and feral psycho-killer crowding the background. The people who employ our hero as an unwilling cat’s paw really, really want to make sure he’s taken care of, so they’ve totally belt, suspenders, super glue and nail gunned his set up. Fortunately, all that fails to weigh down what's buoyant about Trouble Shooter.

Seol Kyeong-gu is Kang Tae-sik, The Troubleshooter - ex cop turned best investigator. The quick sell is that this is a s City Hunter or Magnum PI, a character that could carry a series. An answering machine declares boldly asserts "we solve all cases, confidentially" before a pretty woman (Moon Jeong-hee ) is shown discussing The Troubleshooter’s background and how he’s the best in the business, ultimately declaring that in this case, there’s "no room for middle ground". The horns key up and a montage begins cutting between shots of the heroes’ hard background as a police detective and city frenzy. Even when the opening resolves to a sequence of our hero contending with gridlocked traffic and a grouchy daughter, THAT can't deflate the notion that he’s the man. After he sees his daughter off to school with the declaration that he hopes someday she has her own, equally difficult daughter, he's geared up and phoning his Oracle about where to pick up the trail of his latest case.
Kang takes up his work, casually breaking into a hotel room to photograph a bit of affair evidence, but he finds that the sex noises he’s heard were in fact a pre-recorded tape of a too familiar killer in the moments leading up to a horrific crime. A call to his cell phone alerts him that he's gotten too careless, that his finger and shoe prints are now all over the crime scheme. That’s second before police show up, and soon, Kang is beating a hasty retreat with the help of some improvised defense, deflecting bludgeons with clothes hangers and the like. This frame up is just the first domino in a set up that gets worse and worse for The Troubleshooter.

It’s not that there aren’t clues here. If you can drink from the fire hose, there are deductions to be made. But that’s not the fun of this exercise. Directing and performance energize the movie in a way that the convoluted plot doesn’t come close to approaching. As harried as The Troubleshooter is, he has a halo of "I’m good" cool charisma. His adversaries, be they the honest veteran detective on his tail with the assistance of a sharp minded second, or the real baddies, or the disloyal, it’s a dangerous game played by very competent opponents. Troubleshooter comes off as smart by virtue of being able to surviving everything leveled at him. The villains seem smart by virtue of having set it all up. And when these folks start knuckle dusting the quick thinking and quick striking really establishes a chair leg to the head resonance. In that way, pleasure is more watching the game play out than it is deducing the path that it’ll take.

THE MAN FROM NOWHERE (Korea, 2010, 119 minutes)

Metal Gear's Hideo Kojima recently endorsed this on Twitter. Nuff said? Well, the most essential thing that I have to add is I’d love to see a Hollywood adaptation of the movie with someone like Nic Cage as the lead. Not because I expect that watching them trying to recapture Man From Nowhere’s psyche scarred lead would be good, but because it would likely be entertainingly, really not good.

Bin Won, the mentally challenged son from Mother is Cha Tae-sik, a graduate of some sort of never-flinch Warren Ellis atrocity like special ops training program whose last career ended in tragedy. Now, he’s grown out a shaggy Justin Bieber mop and spends what he hopes to be quiet days as a pawn broker, dealing with little more challenging than buying cheap MP3 players from a neighborhood girl. Except, said girl’s mother is a drug addict, whose need for a fix has caused her to cross some very dangerous people. And, when the girl gets involved, Cha gets involved. And when Cha gets involved, the deserving get hurt, badly.

When it dealt with physical calmness, but emotional tension, I wasn’t buying what Man From Nowhere was selling. Bin Won is fine, and young Sae-ron Kim (previously the daughter of Troubleshooter’s Seol Kyeong-gu in A Brand New Life) is fine. But the movie sets them up in too stagey fashion, then asks for too much. Even as it tries to establish small touches, like Sae-ron Kim’s interest in nail painting, without someone like Jean Reno’s mug to anchor it, this is two too much pretty people in sad roles.

Like its subject, the movie stepped it up for its action scenes. Not that it wasn't already trying hard... quite the opposite, but while the intensity of the personal drama calls attention to the framing of the actors, the set pieces are riveting.
The (localized) name isn’t the only thing about Man From Nowhere that evokes spaghetti western. Like those movies, and also like traditional gangster movies, it finds a host of great faces for the adversaries, and even the criminal incidentals. Ostensibly, these thieves and killers have plans, but even when Cha isn’t there to put a sharp punctuation on the confrontations, their action inevitably spiral into chaos and brutality. When Cha cuts his hair and marches into the middle, Man From Nowhere’s the conflict acquires the level of violence that Korean cinema views either appreciated or is horrified.

BKO: BANGKOK KNOCKOUT (Thailand, 2010, New York Premiere, 105 minutes)

Even if he weren’t featured in it as as inhaler dependant, otherwise juggernaut heavy, Bangkok Knockout is unmistakably a Panna Rittikrai movie (choreographer on Ong Bak, Tom-Yum-Goong, Chocolate - director on Born to Fight, Ong Bak 2 + 3, producer on Power Kids).

American gambling kingpin Mr. Snead (played by the awesomely named Speedy Arnold) works with his Thai connection to organize a competition between fight stunt teams with the promise of sending the winners to Hollywood for fame and fortune. The movie opens with a showdown between the final two, and when the "Fight Club" comes out victorious, instead of a trip to Hollywood, a convoluted configuration of traps results in them being abducted from their victory celebration, brought to an abandoned facility and forced to fight for their lives for the entertainment of Snead’s den of heavily accented, United Nations of Line Readers.

But, if only it was that simple and not, say, full of faked deaths and several more betrayals and obvious twists than the movie could have hoped to sustain.
Yet, to say that this is not a "good movie",is largely besides the point. Calling out problems with plot and minor roles in a movie like this is like complaining about the quality of the mascot race at the baseball game.

The gimmick here is a potent brew of excess and not so subtle reference. Its hero team of martial artists face down a break dancer in a cage fight, an axe wielding Jason clone, and reinforced stunt car among the full on gauntlet assaulting them. Some of what's thrown at the wall, mostly the bit you'd expect, like the fight held on opposite sides of a cascade of water from the poster (or at least, it inspired the poster) or Rittikrai systematically destroying the protagonists, not only stick, but cling to spectacular effect. And, it's easy to forgive plenty when the good bits are this sort of hard hitting fun.

Unfortunately, the problems here are similarly pronounced.

Spoilers... in a final symptom of the desperation that spectacles Bangkock Knockout, there’s a hospital room everyone-dance scene to end this movie. The need to always take the next leap without the assurance of sticking it is what makes the movie entertaining, but, wow, some steadier forethought could have benefited the movie. It couldn't have taken that many eraser marks to cement the plot a little. It couldn't have taken that much work to make a bound hostage look a bit less slapdash. It would probably be more difficult to block out the pylon to pylon monkey leap fight such that it's possible to think about the actual action and not the camera angles and cutting, but that's what this sort of movie earns praise for doing well.
Bangkok Knockout is an enjoyable movie, a movie to have seen, a movie worthy of a bit of legend. It's also a movie that defies walking away thinking without about the problems as much as marveling at its triumphs.

KARATE-ROBO ZABORGAR (Japan, 2011, New York Premiere, 106 minutes)

In my book, this is a whole movie of the best bit at the end of Alien vs Ninja, mixing a bit of vulgarity with gleeful anachronism. It's a fucked up tribute to the fucked up trail blazers of Japanese pop culture. Nowadays, the Getter Robos and Ambassador Magmas might not be invited onto the "Cool Japan" posters, but they did help set the foundation for the whole business. And, ultimately, nobody puts Ambassador Magma in a corner.

Karate Robot Zabugar could be thought of as a spoof/update along the lines of the 2011 Green Hornet, but as wacky as you'd expect from Robo Geisha/Machine Girl's Noboru Iguchi. The movie's end credits display a montage of how many concepts and visuals Zaborgar lifted directly from P Productions' 1974 tokusatsu series Denjin Zaborger. It's impressive to see what the movie lovingly recreated, but the second edge to that sword is being impressed by how much inspired weirdness is from the original. Seeing how Karate Robot Zabugar's CG motorcycle vs motorcycle duel over the surface of a giant robot woman was actually reproduced from a scene filmed with models for a 70's TV boosts Zaborger so much that it actually diminishes Zaborgar a few degrees.

Karate-Robo Zaborgar has endeared itself as a personal favorite of its school of "gotta see that crazy shit" schlock movie, because A) it expresses an evident love for the sort of 70’s explosions in rock quarries super heroes vs weird buggers fare that it’s sending up. B) The original material is from the mindset and time frame that brought us Lion-Maru, a live action show about a lion samurai (from the same studio as Zaborger), Baron Ashura, Go Nagai’s vertically split hermaphrodite, and Kikaida, the guitar carrying, motorcycle riding hippie robot. Go Nagai was drawing manga where children were being chain to a giant robot so that the kiddies are crushed when the hero counter attacks his foe. As such, it's material that couples willingly with Iguchi’s intensions.

The evil Sigma organization is sending out minions like Miss Borg to harvest the DNA of Japan’s top political leaders (who all happen to be boorish fiends in their own right), with intension of fleshing out their Jumbo Mecha. Standing in their way is the heroic agents of Japan’s Secret Police, especially the karate fanatic, master of the Flying Dragon Triple Kick, Yutaka Daimon, along with lifelong companion motorcycle/fighting robot Zaborgar. The intensity of the fight against Sigma is wretched up even higher for the always intense Daimon when he finds himself facing down (or up given that he's often perched on a flying castle) Sigma’s mad leader Doctor Akunomiya - the man responsible for his father’s death.

Karate Robot Zaborgar calls the original Denjin Zaborger absurd, then takes the initiative to ratchet up that absurdity even further. The effective trick is that the movie avoids the hypocrisy of taking a superior position as it laughs at what it is indulging in. It winks at the camera and sends up the daftness of villainous lieutenants like Burner 8, Apache Drill, and King Africa, all the while joyfully recreating their not-so-menacing abilities with its fun mix of CGI and corny practical effects. It thrills at his masculine zeal, and meanwhile as it pays tribute to the hero who is never consumed as he burns with a flame for justice and karate, Yutaka Daimon falls on his ass about half the times he attempts a Triple Dragon Kick.

Not entirely unexpectedly, Iguchi's take on the material is more fun than wise. It has its amusing follow-throughs on the spirit of the original genre, bringing the anti-establishment sentiment closer to the surface as it guffaws at the notion of protecting institutions, playing to all that fascination with sexuality and disfigurement, such as swapping the burly guys who suit up as Dinosaur Army's American football player assassins for bikini glad women with reptiles protruding from their posteriors.

Iguchi also offers some more radical departures, and threads in how own themes, specifically relating to aging and family. Again, there's a touch of daring, without quite rising to "wow, that was insightful." That said, at the end of the day, the titular Karate Robot's Muay Thai mode is still funnier that the diabetes joke.

HAUNTERS (Korea, 2010, New York Premiere, 114 minutes)

In Unbreakable fashion, Haunters features a duel between an underachieving junkyard worker turned loan shark facilities minder and Evil Professor X. Like Unbreakable, its world that unexpectedly gets framed in terms of super hero and super villain. And like Unbreakable, it finds a meeting between classic super hero stories and horror in the relationships between catastrophe, terrific potential and governing rules.

However, what makes Haunters satisfying is not the Shyamalan-ism. At the center of this movie is a great male friendship. Up until when getting struck by a van cost him the job and nearly killed him, Go Soo's Gyoo Nam worked in a scrap yard alongside Ghanaian ex-pat Bubba (Abu Dod) and Turkish ex-pat Al (Enes Kaya). Gyoo Nam is pretty low of the socio economic ladder, but together with his friends, the three outsiders never seem like losers. And while there's plenty of humor in the relationship, it isn't a testosterone fueled jocularity.

Conversely, villain Cho-in (Kang Dong-Won) is a real nasty number. Maimed at an early age, treated as a mortal threat by his parents, taught that even if they only see his prosthetic leg and not his super powers, others will dehumanize him, Cho-in developed a truly acute sense of misanthropy. With a mind control power that exerts enough influence to cause people to hang themselves or even twist off their own heads, and a scheme to steal supplies of cash from grey/black market business, Cho-in truly does live the life of an outsider.

Al and Bubba help out to the extent that they can. Eschewing familiar cheap tricks, these guys aren't foreign wise men and not secretly special ops trained. They can jerry-rig a few things, but their aptitude is along the lines of the guy in college you’d enlist if you locked yourself out of apartment. What they are is a key ingredient in what qualifies Gyoo Nam as the hero of this venture. It's not the immunity to Cho-in's psychic powers. He's a good guy, 'cause the character is a good guy. His ability to maintain humor and compassion under the onslaught of Cho-in's psychic and psychological attack made him and the movie endearing.

MACHETE MAIDENS UNLEASHED (Australia, 2010, New York Premiere, 84 minutes)

Machete Maidens Unleashed! captures the keen film enthusiasm of Mark Hartley’s earlier documentary Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation!, but the film is unlikely to be serve the same purpose. You don't need a notebook this time around. Since the films are mostly either already notorious (Hot Box, Black Mama, White Mama ), or for really specialized interests or MST3K only, it’s not an introduction to oddities that beg hunting down. Instead, it fills in the background of a notable thread in the history of genre film making. The collection of film makers on screen and the funny, but unsettling story that they tell are bound to fascinate any genre film fan.

After World War II, the US film industry found an America friendly, exotic looking backdrop for "jungle films" where labor was cheap and eventually, there was a nice, friendly dictator to further grease the skids. And with those ripe conditions, exploitation film making set up base in the Philippines.

The movie is full of fitting comedy in that it is kind of dark, kind of unsettling and still funny.

Roger Corman is more than a touch cagey about what happened during the period of Philippine movie making. That's the exception. John Landis seems to be having a ball cutting through the BS. R. Lee Ermey isn't having much of any illusions that may/may have existed about the situation.

As the film addresses for a bit late in, this was the location for Apocalypse Now's filming. Corman and his ilk's productions weren't quite as wild as that movie's subject or legend, but , "human life was cheap, film was cheap… it was a great place to make a picture!" This film making was less than safe conditions for the American actors and far less safe than for the Filipino extras. At the same time, while they were demeaning women and blowing things up on camera, the film makers half stumbled into something politically resonate and revolutionary that stood in stark contrast to the dictatorial regime setting up power.

More than a share of bad judgment was exercise before the American movie business' Filipino interest fell away with its more general interest in cheapo exploitation movies. The dominant demeanor of the film makers and stars captured here with 35+ years distances seems to be an eye roll and shrug "mistakes of youth" bemusement rather than guilt . Like the movies whose production it recounts, the discussion here is entertaining, but in a way that feels at least bit dirty.

BETTER THAN SEX (Taiwan, 2002, 92 minutes)

This is a sweet, adorable Taiwanese movie about otaku, idols, knife enthralled teens, cops, jacked up bald taxi drivers wielding baseball bat swords (like a cane sword, but a baseball bat), yakuza, porn merchants and other assholes. Basically, the 2002 Chao-Bin Su (Reign of Assassins) feature is a crowd pleaser with just the right amount of "yikes!"

The movie opens with a TV pitch about how Taiwanese youth have come under the sway of the artifacts of Japanese pop culture, and, with material wealth, but spiritual vacuity, they've gone rotten. To that end, under the guidance of their ex-yakuza minder, a pair of cute Japanese idols will be filmed catching delinquent teens with butterfly nets and bringing them to be fixed.

We then meet Big Slicer, Fat Slicer and Skinny Slicer, a trio of delinquents, each of whom have contentious relationships with their parents, all of whom love trouble, and really have an unhealthy love for sharp objects. After dicking around with the cleavers and other cutting instruments in a pawn shop, they happen upon a curse weapon, and are willing to go into a bit of debt to acquire the object of their fascination.

More important to Better Than Sex, pop singer Michael Wong is Lin Tsu-chuang, a geek gifted, in more ways than one, who sublimates his confidence issues in porn magazines... he has over four and a half thousand of the things. Spurred by the death of his porn monger confidant, and the fact that his supplier's supply is no longer available, Lin ventures out on an odyssey for something better.

Lin's story is far more charming than the hit, supposedly true geek-get-rights fairy tale Train Man. Here, you get simple humanity, and the opportunity to smirk at the wish fulfillment elements. Yeah, are some depths to plumb here and it's certainly not weakly constructed or portrayed, but constructing all the complicated entanglements of crisscrossing narratives, and colorful expression of personal issues, there's a winning, plain, genuine core.

SELL OUT (Malaysia, 2008, New York Premiere, 110 minutes)

Is there a polar opposite for the expression "go over like a lead balloon?" At a festival screening, Sell Out is sure to go over like a... what... hydrogen balloon.

The movie opens with an interview between a Malaysian arts show host (Jerrica Lai's Rafflesia Pong) and an uncooperative, naked maker assaultingly boring films (Sell Out director Yeo Joon Han) on the occation of his 34th film, "Love is Love and Nothing Else" being honored with the Young Overseas Chinese Women New Directors Honorary Mention Award at the Krychindangzhongbushaus Village Far Eastern Film Festival.

Rafflesia rolls her eyes and sniffs the glass of milk in front of her, annoyed to find it soy. The director answers questions about whether his films work to establish a "moment of poetry" with "so" or "yes and no." Then the interview hits the exchange:

"can you tell us why there is so little dialog in your films and why everyone speaks in a retarded way"

'you mean 'people with special needs. I don't think you're supposed to call them 'retarded' anymore."

"I meant 'retarded' as in 'slowed down' because your actors speak at an unusually slow speed.
Some critics have suggested that you tailor your films for foreign audiences. They say you use minimal and slow dialog so that Western audience can take their time to read the subtitles. And when they are reading the subtitles (which, apparently read better than the dialog) they don't notice the atrocious acting onscreen."

That gets the director animated, as he launches into an explanation of his thesis that life is boring. People don't just break into song. If cinema wants to be true to life, nothing should happen. Even as the director asserts this, a gun battle opens up in the coffee shop hosting the interview.

As the movie opens up in earnest, it finds Rafflesia clawing for recognition on the media branch of the FONY mega-conglomerate. Meanwhile, Eric (Peter Davis) is losing his precarious grip on his job in the products division because the 8-in-1 soy processor he invented doesn't have a built in break down mechanism to ensure its malfunction the day after its warranty expires.

The humor here is built on irony squeezed from cold cynicism, and a lot of that concerns showcasing misfortune, up to and including a "Why Does Money Hate Poor People" musical number. You know the Woody Allen line about if comedy bends its funny... the one he puts in the mouth of the unsympathetic blow hard? Sell Out is constantly straining at the point of almost breaking. Observing the meta jokes, you almost want to yell "come on!" Taking in the satires, it's always right on the border of eliciting "all right, I get it!" Like the "retarded" joke, it's ultimately that much funnier for being almost not funny.


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