This was the first day at the New York Asian Film Festival that felt like the old NYAFFs. The organizers were talkative, the audience was into the films and the films actually felt like they belonged here and not another ritzier festival.
I arrived with my friend Stan and we ran into Mr C outside the theater and then headed in. Everyone seemed to be talkative which was good.
The first film was the World Premiere of Fire Lee's ROBBERY. Since the film had never screened before no one knew what to expect. Grady introduced it by talking about the current economic crisis in Hong Kong. The rich are getting richer, the poor poorer. Families are staying together because they simply can't afford not to live together. The young people have a nihilistic attitude because things are so bad that even if they have an advanced degree they can't find work at a 7 Eleven. All of the old stores are closing because they can't afford the rent leaving only Starbucks and the chain stores that blight the world. There is no hope only laughter at the absurdity of it all. We were warned it could be indulgent, dull and raw. Grady added it was a film they had to show because it was so crazy and alive.
I don't know what to say. ROBBERY is a work of a filmmaker who has something to say and he's going to entertain the hell out of you as he does it. Its violent, off color, biting and completely out there and its one of the few films that really belongs at NYAFF.
To be completely honest its also probably one of the best films of 2015 and one hell of a calling card.
The plot of the film has a young man wandering into a 24 hour convenience store and getting a job. As things progress an irate customer decides to rob the store and it spirals out from there. More customers come in, one carrying a bomb. People die- lots horribly. And there is a steady stream of laughs as the over the top nature of it all keeps going farther and farther over the top.
The audience ate it up. One guy a couple of seats to my left was laughing in a way that scared the crap out of me. No one should have a laugh that sounds like that or laugh that long and hard. Another guy behind me just kept mumbling "I love this film I fucking love this film" over and over again.
I have no idea what to say but its freaking amazing. It ultimately makes no sense but who the hell cares? This is a rollercoaster ride to hell and back and you just have to go with it. Its a film that engages you on every level and forces you to react and think about it. When Stan and I left the theater we ended up talking about the film for an hour afterward and only stopped because he got on a subway home.
Fire Lee has made one hell of a film. Its a film that should get him noticed and hopefully making films for the next couple of decades. I want to compare him to any number of young turk directors, chiefly Tarantino, but he's way beyond most of them. ROBBERY is a film that has so much going for it on so many levels that Lee is clearly a filmmaker working on a level way beyond his years. I can't believe he's a first time filmmaker.
Trust me you want to see this- no you need to see this. Its bleak and black and bloody and nasty and funny. Its not for kids or most proper audiences but as a treat for some one who loves film, who loves to be challenged and loves to come out a film going "what the hell did I just see and when can I see it again?" this is a must see.
After ROBBERY the festival ran the first part of SOLOMON'S PERJURY. After the film there was much unhappiness from the audience who bemoaned having to wait five days to see part 2. Worse were the cries of anguish of those who can't see the second part. Sadly the Subway Cinema decision to split the film, which Grady remarked he didn't understand, will be driving several audience members to the torrent sites to find the second part. (I did not see the film but went to lunch with Stan)
The third film of the day and the last one for me was Lau Ho-Leung's TWO THUMBS UP.
Before the film Lau Ho-Leung came out and gave a brief introduction-basically saying thanks for coming and say he's rather talk about the film after the screening.
The film follows four robbers who get back together after one of their number gets out of prison for a long stint. While in prison he came up with the idea to dress up as cops so they could rob people. He even went further saying that they should steal corpses which are coming back from the mainland since people are transporting money in the bodies. In short order they pull off their job, but before they can get away they encounter another group of robbers - also dressed as cops- who are better armed and shots are fired, prisoners are taken and things happen.
I'm mixed on the film. For me the main character who gets out of prison is a dick for much of the film and its hard to know why the other guys put up with him. Additionally the really doesn't get going until the robbery actually happens. Once it goes down and things spring from that the film comes to life, but its still more than a bit jagged. Yes its funny, yes Simon Yam's character breaks your heart (no he does not die) but the cartoony nature of it all never fully meshes and it just sort of is okay or good instead of great (which it is in moments).
I will say that the film is an interesting riff on what it means to be a hero. With the frequent use of a Batman balloon the film kind of is almost a clandestine Batman film. Do heroes need uniforms? Do they even have to be good guys? there is much to ponder.
After the film Lau Ho-Leung came out and there was a Q&A. Best known as a screenwriter he talked about how finally directing his first film was so chaotic he didn't have time to be frightened. He spoke of how the film came from a discussion when he was a reporter about how all anyone sees of Hong Kong are cops and triads. What of the robbers? We were told how reading a book of world cinema made him want to make films. Additionally he talked about the ideas behind the film and how anyone could be a hero. It was a really good talk that added a great deal to ones appreciation of the film and it's maker.
After the Q&A I headed home. I had seen the days last film THE FINAL REEL already, and was too tired to contemplate any more films.
Personally it was a great day at NYAFF and the first day that really felt like the old days.
(More pictures of the Lau Ho-Leung appearance can be found on our Tumblr page.)