Friday, June 6, 2008

NYAFF: Southeast Asian roundup

Aside from the Bodyguard films and King Naresuan I and II from Thailand, two other Southeast Asian nations are represented at the New York Asian Film Festival, among the usual offerings from Japan, Korea and Hong Kong.

A favorite will likely be the action-packed Vietnamese espionage tale, The Rebel, starring Johnny Nguyen, Dustin Nguyen and Ngo Thanh Van. It was a crowd-pleaser at last year's Bangkok International Film Festival, where the Nguyens and Ngo Thanh Van made an appearance and added much glamour to the festival.

NYAFF organizer Subway Cinema has more about The Rebel:

Playing like a 1920s, Vietnamese version of Logan's Run, it features more Nyguens than you can shake a stick at. Director Charlie Ngyuen films this tale of an elite secret agent working for the French colonial government with all the scope and production values of a Once Upon a China-era Tsui Hark. The high-kicking secret agent is tasked to infiltrate the trouble-making, nationalist revolutionaries who’ve been ruining his masters’ afternoon lattes, but he quickly finds that maybe there’s a reason they call them “freedom fighters,” after all.

Star Johnnie Nyguen, who’s already faced off against both Jet Li and Tony Jaa, steps into his first starring role as the conflicted agent and he throws both knees and both elbows into his performance. Handling the drama with equal aplomb, his work here announces the arrival of an action star to be reckoned with. Add in Dustin “21 Jump Street” Nyguen as a surprisingly believable nigh-invincible nutjob, and pop star Ngo Thanh Van (who also acquits herself well both dramatically and action-wise) and you get one rousing martial arts film with more than its share of “HOLY SHIT!” moments.

I've seen The Rebel, and wouldn't mind watching it again one day (there's always DVD). And I was pretty excited to find out that The Rebel team is making another film, Monk on Fire. But it's the Indonesian entry, Kala that really piques my interest. I mean, all a festival programmer or synopsis writer has to do is say the magic words, Tears of the Black Tiger, and you've got my attention. Subway Cinema's Marc invokes the name of Wisit Sasanatieng's genre-defying, culture-bending classic in his write-up about Kala:

I think the two films are cousins in spirit, in how they reflect back a traditional American or Western genre with uniquely Asian elements woven into it.

In Kala, you’ve got the classic setup of a '50s Hollywood noir — the cop, the detective, the femme fatale — but you also have a death-god and strange curses! And every time the film turns another dark corner (and there are many of them in Kala), you feel as if you’ve moved from one multiplex cinema to another, or changed channels on a very late-night TV binge, yet it all ties together in the end…sort of.

Marc wraps up his look at Kala with an explanation about why you won't see too much Southeast Asian films in the NYAFF.

We were worried about programming Kala since Southeast Asian movies don’t have the kind of built-in fanbase in NYC that the Korean, Hong Kong and Japanese titles do, simply because the industry there is much smaller, and so few of them ever even make it over here.

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