Fine, Totally Fine is a kindred spirit to Adrift in Tokyo. Both films display a warm if rather offbeat sense of humanity. Fine, Totally Fine can be summed up with a line from one of the characters: “life’s more fun when you’re an idiot.” This loopy comedy focuses on a group of appealing idiots and losers. There’s a woman who has so much trouble functioning in the real world that she can’t even open a box of Kleenex, and a guy who loves pulling horror gags on both friends and strangers. You hope these characters find success but not at the expense of their delightful individuality.
A different kind of loser is at the center of Dai Nipponjin (Big Man Japan). This mock-documentary by Japanese comedian Hitosi Matumoto begins with a camera crew following Dai Sato (played by Matumoto), a middle-aged loser who may just be the dullest guy in Japan. We sense some hostility on the part of his neighbors and his rundown home is covered in abusive graffiti. But we’re not sure why. Our first clue as to what’s up occurs when he enters The Department of Monster Prevention. Then Matumoto drops subtle hints about what’s to come by having Dai Sato obsessed with things that get big (be it an umbrella that extends or expanding seaweed). Then we finally discover the real reason this guy’s the subject of attention: when giant monsters attack Japan he turns into a 500 foot tall superhero. Dai Nipponjin is the driest of dry comedies as it chronicles Dai Sato’s problems from failing TV ratings to appeasing sponsors to a wife who can only stand to see him once every six months. This film is so bizarrely absurd that it defies description.
Absurd in a different way is another Japanese actioner, Dororo. The program listing suggests “Disney movie + Lord of the Rings + samurai film + LSD = this huge Japanese blockbuster about a wandering swordsman who fights demons.” Well that about sums it up. The film boasts wild action and effects.
Grady Hendrix describes China’s Assembly as “a great movie that takes a radical change at the hour mark.” Set in Northeast China in 1948, the first half of the film serves up brutal war action, reminding us yet again of the tragic waste of lives that combat can incur. Then the story dramatically shifts gears to deliver something richer. The action is intensely shot and the emotional drama is riveting.
A trio of films rep countries that don’t often get highlighted even at Asian festivals. Kala, NYAFF’s first entry from Indonesia, serves up an alternate history sci-fi film involving a narcoleptic reporter and a gay cop. This film drips sweaty noir style. King Naresuan, a historical epic about a warrior king from Thailand, had a story that was simply too big for just one film so it spills over into a sequel that will play at NYAFF as well. (I think there may even be a third film coming!) Lavish sets, tense political intrigue and battles involving elephants, nine-foot rifles and warrior princesses fill the screen. The action is more about epic scale than panache but this pair of films turns history into a breathtaking adventure. It may also be the only film about a king directed by a prince (Prince Chatrichalerm Yukol). And then Vietnam offers a kick-ass period action film called The Rebel. Set in the 1920s, it deals with Vietnam’s quest for independence and a group of rebel fighters. The film stars the hunky Johnny Nguyen, and features high octane action.
Action of a more chilling kind permeates South Korea’s Shadows in the Palace. This all-female murder mystery set in the 15th century is the creation of woman writer-director Kim Mee-jeung. The surface is all elegant and refined but underneath lurks something dark and evil. The events take place in a royal court and involve the lethal and ruthless maneuvering of the court maids. In a sense this is a horror film because the physical and emotional violence that these women inflict on each other is truly terrifying.
And finally let me mention Sukiyaki Western Django, a cultural pastiche on acid from Japan’s deliciously twisted master of extreme Asian cinema Takashi Miike. Sukiyaki Western Django serves up Japanese stars speaking English in a samurai riff on Italian spaghetti westerns. Quentin Tarantino makes a cameo appearance to anoint this film with cult status, in case there was any doubt. This is an insane cinematic ride featuring female gunslingers, a western style showdown of Crips and Bloods, and just a hint of tragic romance.
What: 7th Annual New York Asian Film Festival
When: June 20 through July 6, 2008
Where: IFC Center (June 20 – July 3) 323 Sixth Avenue, between 3rd and 4th Streets and Japan Society (July 3 – July 6) 333 East 47th Street, between 1st and 2nd Avenues