New York Asian Film Festival: No really, All Your Cultural Institutions Are Belong to Us

I have an affinity with the New York Asian Film Festival.  It’s got the same summer birthday as the little man in my life, so what’s not to like?

This year my son turns 10, and this month, the New York Asian Film Festival celebrates its 10th Anniversary – a decade of bringing over celluloid pyrotechnic penis guns from Japan, vengeance from Korea, and romance/ennui from the three Chinas (or maybe just the two, Mainland C and HK).

The Festival launches later this month and runs from June 25-July 8th at the Walter Reade Theatre at Lincoln Center with screenings at the Japan Society July 1-4, and midnight screenings at the IFC Center downtown on June 25+26 as well as July 3,4,5.  Guests include the pillars of Hong Kong movie-making, actors Sammo Hung and Simon Yam.

But I wanted to talk to heavy-weight Grady (I-left-my-heart-in-Hong-Kong) Hendrix, who, along with the Subway Cinema team, put together this festival year after year and keep it going.  I’ve interviewed Grady in the past and he’s got the the love and affection for the movies coming out of East and South East Asia, an in depth knowledge of the various industries by country, and the business sense to bring it all together and weed out the best selection to bring over for New Yorkers.  (This year, team Subway Cinema chose 45 of 421 movies for the Fest.)  I managed to steal him away before a meeting to ask him what he’s excited for in this year’s line-up, the uptown/downtown venues, John Woo v. Jackie Chan, and why, after all these years, his heart is in Hong Kong.

Me: The New York Asian Film Festival has taken place at the Anthology Film Archives down on Second St., and its also screened at the IFC Center off West 4th st.  The Japan Society was added three years ago, and now the venue is Lincoln Center.

Grady Hendrix: It was largely accidental.  The Anthology became too small for us, they remodeled with larger seats and then had to cut back on the number of seats due to fire code.  But they were great to us when we were ugly and no one liked us.  We moved to the IFC and we love the location.  The Japan Society we’d been negotiating over the years.  But we came here [to Lincoln Center] because Gavin Smith (editor-in-chief of Film Comment) invited us.

We’ll see if our audience will come.  The IFC has been great for us, but this is the Upper West Side.  It remains to be seen whether this will be a love match.

Me: Is this a sign that movies coming out of East Asia are rising in status in the U.S.?

Grady Hendrix: It’s fallen.  When we started in 2000, no one cared.  Then in 2003 Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon came out and everybody cared.  Then there was the Korean boom, and now, no one cares again.  It’s interesting, from 2003-2006 or 2007, the big companies were picking up these movies: The Weinstein Company, Sony, Lions Gate.  Now the companies picking these up are Taiseng – good companies, but small.

Me: Every year you host directors and actors at the festival, but this year you’ve got some serious heavy weights from Hong Kong – Sammo Hung and Simon Yam are both going to be here to introduce their movies.  These guys are huge stars and real cornerstones to the industry in Hong Kong.

Grady Hendrix: Which is great. It’s due to three things: Ip Man changed a lot of things. It came out in 2008 and it was a big hit. It’s not competing with Hollywood or CGI.  It launched a Hong Kong film making that’s returning to its classic values.   Also, the Hong Kong Economic Trade Office – we’ve been wooing them, and they’ve become our sugar daddy.  We wanted this and they made it come true.

Third, and I’m a sap, but for us it’s really poignant, in this year’s line up, Sammo Hung is almost 60, and he’s giving the performance of his career in IPMAN 2. Simon Yam – when I was growing up, he was the pretty boy, the leading man.  Now he’s playing this middle aged dad in Echos of the Rainbow.  Jackie Chan is 56 years old, there’s the Shaw Brothers movie and for us it’s like all these old lions have come roaring back and are doing some of the most amazing stuff ever done.  Across Asia it’s been huge – people are raving about Gallants; IPMAN 2 is the most successful movie. Even critics who only watch obscure arthouse movies from Asia like it.  It’s a tribute to them growing up.

Me: You’ve got two war movies in this festival that I want to ask you about.  For the first, you’re showing the 5 hour version of John Woo’s Red Cliff.  Second, you’ve got Jackie Chan’s new movie, Little Big Soldier.  They’re both war movies, but they take very different tacks from one another.

Grady Hendrix: Little Big Soldier is profoud and moving.  I find it so interesting.  Some people are taking about this movie in the context of the one China idea, but if you’re paying attention, the heros of movie are the losers.

In the movie, Hero, the message is that sacrifices had to be made for unity.  But in Little Big Soldier, the sympathies lie with the damaged.  For them, unification is a failure.  Jackie Chan is devoted to Hong Kong.  He’s more political than he’s given credit for.  There’s a little bit of Hong Kong in Little Big Soldier. All the politics, unification, these big ideas – Jackie Chan’s attitude is “I just want to make a living and not get killed.”  His concerns are more intellectual than John Woo.

John Woo’s movies are about irreconcilable friendships between two men.  Jackie Chan is about the working man in the world today.  But Jackie’s movies aren’t emotionally deep the way John Woo’s movies are.

What blew me away about Red Cliff is how good John Woo still is.  He’s got a 20 minute set piece about the weather that is riveting.  The Red Cliff battle is one of the biggest scenes in Chinese literature.  John Woo’s movie was such a hit and such a return to China for him.

Me: What are you excited about in this year’s line-up?

Grady Hendrix: I’m besotted with the nostalgia coming from Hong Kong.  Echos of the Rainbow is a sappy movie, but it earns sentiment.  There’s a nostalgia in Hong Kong for the way things were.  If you go there, people will point out the changes in landscape and business and say “this used to be ____”  “that used to be ____”.  “Used to be” is the operative in Hong Kong for what it was.  In the 80’s movies were made for the working class and the new middle class.  In the 90’s that went away, the 2000’s that went away –  it was all about cop movies, fantasy movies. Now we’re return to a nostalgia for the people that built HK, the clock punchers.

Beyond the Hong Kong stuff –  my heart is there but beyond that, we’ve got Cow and Crazy Racer which are both from a new phase of mainland Chinese film making that are not epic dramas and not art films about state oppression.  These movies are funny, and modern, and fast.  That’s huge.  Crazy Racer is a movie I’ve been excited about since last year.

Korea has a good line up, but Japan – I love Golden Slumber, not love as much as Fish Story, but Simbol and Confession – these are both huge. Confession is from the same director that did Kamikaze Girls, and it’s a big slab of something else, a true masterpiece.  It resembles Park Chan Wook’s revenge movies, but it makes him look like teenager who reads too many comics.  Confession is about a school teacher whose daughter drowns, and realizes that two of her students did it.  This movie has no value lesson, no pitch line, you come out staggered after watching it.  Some people will not like it, but it’s something major.  I can’t describe it.

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