Friday, July 14, 2006

NY Asian Film Festival Part 2

None of our fests have made us much if any money - its usually around breakeven which in itself is a minor miracle because we all totally suck at getting sponsors on board. Basically we hate asking for money and then having to bend over backwards to be nice to corporations. All four of us - and Dan who recently joined up (yes - another white guy!) - are dormant anti-establishmentarians who view multinationals with complete suspicion. Sure I worked for JP Morgan for a load of years but never felt very corporate (and I think they would have agreed with that assessment!) - though I gleefully took that paycheck every two weeks! But we survived on ticket sales and keeping our costs down - i.e. no paid for guests, a theater that has character but rarely toilet paper and the use of the facilities and paper supply of our work places! This year though we took a major hit to our wallets - costs - especially those of shipping prints - have skyrocketed and we took a bath on our Ram Gopal Varma sidebar. It added up to a big loss and we are wondering whether we can come back again next year. We sure hope so but none of us can afford to lose this much money and keep smiling - so we may see some changes next year if we are back - like a McDonalds logo tattooed on our collective foreheads - it could not be worse than those commercials of their's we showed - yum yum the Asian salad. This year we actually had some big name sponsors gotten through the friendly devices of our co-presenters The ImaginAsian and people have asked if we are now living the good life - McDonalds, Bud Light, Chevas Regal, Kirin - it sure sounds good until you realize the money we got from them did not even pay for our program book - lets say they bought us cheap like two bit hookers on 10th avenue.

The festival itself - the Varma films apart - was great fun. There is no high better than a full house loving a film that you picked and took a chance on. Or no low like no one showing up to a film you believe in.

Ah, the Varma films. Just a word of advice to future film festival programmers - stay as far and wide from Indian distributors as you can. The sidebar was an enormous headache and a complete fiasco. The Ram Gopal Varma people approached us a few months ago and asked us to put a spotlight on his films and we were happy to do so because we really love his gritty crime films and hoped we could introduce his work to an American audience. But it was a series of broken promises - the director would come - had to cancel - he would be interviewed on radio - never showed up twice - the films would have newly struck prints - didn't happen and they didn't even bother to tell us this - we would get them three weeks before the fest - they arrived late for the first shows and we used dvds - we would get Shiva as a world Premiere - oops the US distributor decided he didn't want to and another promise broken as the print never arrived and they didn't bother to tell us until we frantically emailed them as to the whereabouts of the film. We were burnt before when we tried to show Dil Se in the same way - never again. I hope Indian distributors have their own circle of hell. On top of that sadly, few people were at all interested in these films. I don't know why - they are great movies but it would have been easier getting our NY audience to vote Republican than sitting through an Indian film.

There were some great highlights though beginning with our screening of Always at the Japan Society with director Takashi Yamazaki in attendence to a very enthusiastic sold out audience. It's a very sentimental old fashioned film full of cliches but they are purposeful ones - this was a nostalgic tribute not only to those times (the late 1950's) but also to the films that were being made at that time - if you allow yourself to indulge in the cliches and let them swallow you up it is an incredible almost purifying emotional catharsis and much of the audience came out in tears. I also had the good fortune to spend a fair amount of time with the director for a few days prior to the screening - he also made The Returner which is as different a film from Always as one could imagine and he next hopes to make a samurai film. He is a really nice quiet spoken guy - in his mid-30's and was thrilled to have his film shown in NYC. At the airport when someone from the Japan Society and I picked him up we both realized that we had forgotten to bring a sign with his name on it and my friend only vaguely knew what he looked like - but as soon as we saw him we knew he had to be the director - just that cool casual look that you expect. When I asked him if he was surprised to have won all those awards he laughed it off - "only because the judges are all in their 60's". One night a bunch of us went karaoking - something I usually avoid at all costs - his taste ran to old Japanese love songs, mine to Elvis Costello but we finished the night with a rousing performance of "Linda Linda Linda" that left me able only to croak for the next few days.

The fest started off with a Malaysian film, Gangster. It's a low budget film that is a bit crude in its production values but one that we thought worth showing for the terrific acting of one actor who plays three roles (which I never realized until Grady told me and I still didn't believe him) and for a film that seems to break the mold of at least most Malaysian films I have seen (not a lot admittedly). It explores the sludgy underworld of Kuala Lumpur - illegal race car driving, drugs, prostitution, shady discos and nasty gangsters of course. And the director came on his own dime! I also had a chance to spend some time with him, Bade Haji Azmi, and he too is a young guy who was really nice and unassuming. It turns out that his family is like the Barrymore's of Malaysia - his father was a director, his wife is a well-known singer and actress, 2 of his relatives are in the film, a cousin is a famous actress - and when I told him how much I liked the film Sepet and the actress, he casually mentions that she is his neice! Hey, hook me up!Gangster was a big hit in Malaysia and he seemed worried that now he will have to make Gangster 2 and 3 when all he really wants to make are dramas and love stories! He was very happy to see people come out for his film and most people enjoyed it - though for a few it was just a bit too downscale.

The thing is we can't only show Japanese and Korean films which are the ones that really sell well. We show a lot of them but this being an Asian film festival we sort of feel like we need a few films from elsewhere - but the audience we have developed over these five years and the mailing list we have created is very much one of people who are into Japanese and Korean films and who don't have a lot of interest in films from other parts of Asia - definitely not Indian as we discovered! But any film from Southeast Asia has been a tough sell for us over the years. It still saddens me to this day that only about 70 people came out to see the Thai film Baytong a few years ago - a wonderfully powerful film that very much speaks to the world we live in of terrorism and religious intolerance.

Art of the Devil 2 from Thailand did reasonably well but I was expecting much better since everytime we played the trailer before other films the audience's went into shrieking delight and actually applauded the trailer! A first for us. But horror films have been less popular the last two years than during the big J-Horror craze - I think people have had enough of them but AOD2 is an enjoyable grotty little piece of messed up entertainment and people came out with mad grins that made me believe they were about to go dismember something. One lovely young woman who I had warned before going in came out a bit dissatisfied though - why I asked - I expected more gore - more open boils - more burnt skin - who is this woman I wondered, the reincarnation of Jack the Ripper - no, it turns out she is a medical student who spends her days dissecting bodies. Hard to beat that. Next time we will have her do that before the show on the stage.

Small films are a tough sell too. I guess I understand if I put myself in the place of a ticket buyer - we are showing 27 films - most people only have the time and money to see a handful - so which ones do you choose - the big films of course - so would I. Or the ones that have some hype circling around them. But so much of this is still a mystery to me - assuming most people don't spend a lot of time reading about Asian films on the internet where exactly does this hype come from I wonder? But as expected - Bittersweet Life, Great Yokai War, Shinobi, Duelist, Umizaru 2, Always did real well audience wise - but the big fat surprise of the fest was the adoration from many for Funky Forest - both showings sold out easily and we added a third screening. I think it may be in some ways one of the simply coolest films I have ever seen - but its impossible to say exactly why. A series of oddball skits that are only slightly connected by their wierdness - someone said it was similar to cable surfing at 4 am in Tokyo - it is fascinating and impossible to turn away from. Even during the skits that don't click you still feel oddly compelled to watch and be charmed. I've never seen anything quite like it and it is the start of a new cult that dances on command - do the Funky Forest!

Two films that didn't sell out but are personal favorites of mine hit a nice chord with the audience - Magicians and Feather in the Wind (GIT) both from Song Il-gon. I didn't expect great audiences for either of these very small low budget films but didn't care - we wanted to show them - or at least I did! Magicians had a smallish audience but many of them were really stunned by its simple but heartfelt message of friendship, love and remembering those no longer with us. Two people came up to me afterwards who were absolutely devastated. It's a bit stodgy in style due to its no edit/cut structure and it takes a while to get going but by the final song it is truly powerful. GIT on the other hand had a real solid audience. One of my favorite films from last year I worried that its very subtle arty sloooow moving almost plotless narrative would test the patience of some but this quiet romance won them over completely. While watching it the audience was so quiet that I thought they were hating it but was happy to see the Audience Vote results - 70% Excellent, 29% Good.

Linda Linda Linda had the highest number of tickets sold - not really to my surprise since any of our films featuring Japanese school girls always do well - but still I was happy to see folks enjoy this so much. It hits all my pleasure zones as it laicsadaisically follows 4 school girls around for a few days as they practice their songs for the school festival and simply interact. Not really funny nor dramatic - but its near haiku simplicity is what makes it so special for me. There was a US distributor there who told us that she hated every minute of it - and I began to understand that if people like her were picking the Asian films the US public gets to see then we need to keep doing this festival.

Then there is Welcome to Dongmakgol. The films we show are decided by a simple majority vote of the five of us - once a film gets three Yes votes we try and see if we can show it. The first time through after we all saw it, Dongmakgol had one Yes vote - mine. I was actually stunned and admittedly annoyed that the rest of the group didn't feel the same emotions I did after seeing the film - I thought it was glorious - manipulative to some large degree I admit but done with enormous heart. For two months I bugged them and bugged them to change their minds - no one would give in - I told them it would sell out and win the Audience Award - I was ignored until it won the award at Udine and we were short of Korean films and they told me to now shut up and stop whining! So we got it. You have to whine for what you believe in! It had the audience in its palm from the get go with its surrealistic mix of earthy humor, farce, brutality, humanity and magic. And like only a Korean film can do - its emotional swerve toward the end hushed the audience into total silence and left them battered and bruised but clearly in some awe. It didn't win the Audience Award as I predicted but as you will see it came darn close.

The final Sunday was somehow the best for us. A short but sweet return to our roots. We were unable to get one HK film this year and felt bad about that but we tried - the 2 Election films, Seven Swords, Sha Po Lang, Isabella - but came up short - the distributors wanted a big rental fee for Isabella that we just could not afford and the other ones have been picked up by US distributors who would not give us the time of day. I just saw that SPL is being released straight to video - gee would it have hurt to have gotten it some publicity at our festival Harvey? We got covered ths year by everyone - huge articles in the NY Times, the Village Voice and Time Out and coverage in a ton of internet websites and other smaller publications. Grady is either a worlock to get these guys to cover our little fest or he is handing out sexual favors. I just hope my name was never mentioned - I have a fear that some day a 65-year old fat guy with a long beard will come to my apartment to collect. But I guess its better to just go straight to video and have your film disappear among the shelves. And they love Asian films don't they?

Anyway back to the final Sunday. If people haven't heard a few months ago the Music Palace was purchased by a new owner and he discovered nearly 300 prints within - just left along with unopened bills, crumbling schedules and dusty snacks as the old owners made a dash apparently and never looked back. We were invited to do an inventory of the prints, posters and lobby cards in below freezing weather and were allowed to pick some prints out to show. This may be the last time they are shown - what is now happening to all this stuff is truly tragic as they have been moved from the MP which is scheduled to be torn down very soon to a doctors's basement that is filled with water and dampness and should destroy much of all this within months. We tried finding a home for all this stuff but the owners wanted more money than anyone was willing to pay and now its a total mess. Grady and I ventured into this basement with water lapping over our shoes and using our cellphone light to try and find the films we wanted to show. It was impossible and we ended up taking the first five films we found that we liked and getting the hell out of there - Grady seems to think he got some spore disease down there that will kill him within ten years. We had no idea what kind of condition the prints would be in but invited folks to come see them for free (with possibly a small donation to help pay for the theater rental) and stay all day. Many did. And they brought food and beer and lots of good spirit as they cheered for Yuen Biao, Sammo, Jackie, Jet and Joyce Godenza one more time. It was so great seeing these films on the big screen again - perhaps for the last time and the prints were in fact in amazing condition - they must be made of stern stuff. We all sat there from 2pm to midnight and watched Knockabout - wow is all I can say - Yuen Biao was so young when he made this and his dexterity was mindblowing, Dragons Forever - the favorite of the day I would guess, She Shoots Straight - one of the lesser know Girls with Guns films but one of my favorites as they lavish it with lots of melodrama, Miracles or Mr. Canton and Lady Rose - Jackie's favorite of his films and I loved it but have to admit that it felt slow after seeing the previous three action films - there are some long slogs between action scenes and the Stanley Fung police routine grows old real fast. Finally, we ended it with Jet's New Legend of Shaolin - far from his best film but hey its still Jet and we were able to find it in the dark. It hit midnight and it was time to go - I wish we could have stayed all night watching these films - but we all collected ourselves and left the darkening theater with a sense of a bond between all of us - thinking those were days when HK made films that no one could or ever will match. What a great day to end the festival with.

The top three Audience Award winners were Always, Dongmakgol and Funky Forest. The first two had nearly 100% excellent, Funky just edged out a few others - Linda Linda Linda, GIT, Yokai Wars, Strangers of Mine, Shinobi - but it was really the surprise hit of the festival. One festival programmer from another fest told us that he had to see it six times before he got it - but we New Yorkers got it right away! I was glad that Always won in fact. At the dinner with the director he mentioned with a sheepish grin that his film came in second to Dongmakgol at Udine and hoped he could do better this time. It did by a nose hair.

I hope we make it back next year but I am so glad this year is over with!


edmame said...

Although I'm long ways from NY, I do appreciate all your hard work spreading the love. The Varma story is shocking. Was it too $$ flying in from India, or did he misread NYAFF as Cannes (if you squint hard enough...)

cheers and chin up!!

Brian said...

It's really difficult for us to gage what happened with the Varma retro. We always dealt with staff member who may have misrepresented everything - but we actually did receive a signed letter from Varma with promises of new prints and being delivered well before the fest. What's so weird is that as the fest approached and no prints had been received we asked where they were and the story we received was that the newly struck prints had been made and were sitting in the shop that had done the work - but - get this which raised red flags with me - the reason we didn't have the prints was their accountant was on vacation and they could not pay their fee. Huh? So we wait and wait - they get here late for the first 2 films - and we finally play them and the prints are as beat up as a pug boxer with scars and green lines going down the print. So who knows. Hell, Richard Corliss at Time magazine was going to write an article just on Varma but when Shiva didn't show he cancelled that. They are just complete idiots in my book - but unfortunately we have heard of many horror stories dealing with Indian distributors - basically that their word means nothing to them - and we would not have done this except they seemed so eager to do so that we thought this was a once in a lifetime opportunity to showcase a few of his films.