A regular player in Hong Kong movies of the 90’s, Donnie Yen seemed fated to play bad guys in big movies, and good guys in small films. Known for his intensity, producers just weren’t willing to take a risk on him as a leading man. And then, in 2005, he appeared in Kill Zone (better known by its Chinese title SPL: Sha Po Lang) and everything changed. Choreographing the action and starring in the film, Yen introduced numerous styles from outside Hong Kong, including Mixed Martial Arts, judo, and wrestling, and his co-stars, Sammo Hung and Wu Jing, were both able to keep up with him. SPL set the screen on fire, and Donnie Yen hasn’t looked back since. His rise has been as swift and as sudden as his onscreen fighting.
Born in China, he grew up in Boston, and was trained in martial arts by his mother, Mark Bow-sim. As a teenager he met legendary Hong Kong action director Yuen Wo-ping, who took him under his wing and brought him to Hong Kong. His first two movies were Yuen’s Drunken Tai Chi and Tiger Cage and then Tsui Hark cast him as the sincerely misguided General Lan opposing Jet Li in Once Upon a Time in China 2 and everyone wanted to know, “Who was that guy?” He then starred in Iron Monkey directed by Yuen Wo-ping, a classic of mid-90’s Hong Kong cinema, but he also spent a lot of time doing TV and small parts in other films.
In 1997 and 1998, he directed two movies, Ballistic Kiss and Legend of the Wolf, which had a mixed receptions, and he started working in Hollywood. Choreographing and appearing in Guillermo del Toro’s Blade II and appearing opposite Jackie Chan in Shanghai Knights his poise, dignity, and savagery made an instant impression. He returned to Hong Kong and made Kill Zone (aka SPL: Sha Po Lang) and then he singlehandedly redeemed Flashpoint, Wilson Yip’s follow-up film which features a final fight scene that combined kung fu, wrestling, MMA, and judo and has influenced numerous directors, and won Yen two awards (the Golden Horse and the Hong Kong Film Awards) for action choreography.
He and director Wilson Yip, as well as Sammo Hung, teamed up again for Ip Man and Ip Man 2 which was a new change for him. Not since Jet Li played Wong Fei-hung in Once Upon a Time in China has an actor stepped so comfortably into a role. The very picture of Chinese cool, Donnie Yen’s Ip Man has become an onscreen icon who has inspired prequels, sequels, and rip offs across Asia. While so many people were wondering who would be the successor to Jackie Chan and Jet Li, it never occurred to them that he was right in front of us all along, and his name was Donnie Yen.
Hong Kong, 2012
North American Premiere
90 minutes, in Cantonese and Profanity with English subtitles
Directed by: Pang Ho-cheung
Starring: Chapman To, Kristal Tin, Simon Lui, Ronald Cheng, Susan Shaw Yin-yin
Described as “astonishingly filthy,” “outrageous,” and “displaying a reckless abandon in mentioning genitals” Pang Ho-cheung’s show business satire pushes good taste as far as it can go, and then it keeps on going. What’s most astonishing about this lewd, crude, and hilariously dirty film is that it achieves all its shocking effects with nothing more than dialogue. They say there’s no business like show business, but Pang shocks us not by showing, but by telling. Shot in just 12 days, on a microscopic budget, the actors, director, and screenwriter wrote this porno Apocalypse Now as they went along, taking the audience with them into their heart of comedy darkness.
Chapman To plays a producer invited to a “sharing session” with a herd of lazy film students who claim that films don’t need producers. What does a producer even do? “Well,” he says, losing his patience, “a producer is like pubic hair: he reduces the friction between the financers and the director.” And then he’s off, relating the epic story of his attempt to remake the 70’s Shaw Brothers sexploitation movie I Want More! starring its original lead, Susan Shaw Yin-yin, now in her 60’s, and in desperate need of a body double (Popping Candy, played in a career-redefining performance by Dada Chan). After Chapman agrees to give up his visitation rights to his beloved daughter in order to secure a loan from his ex-wife, he approaches a freaky triad boss named Brother Tyrannosauraus, who forces him to (maybe? probably?) make love to his “mule wife” for his loan.
More than just a bunch of dirty jokes, this is the kind of fast-paced verbal comedy someone in 1930’s Hollywood might have made if they’d been allowed. It’s a movie that takes no prisoners. Chapman To’s desire to debase himself for money is a commentary on Hong Kong where people are all-too-ready to do anything for a buck and he also makes time to talk about how the recent hit film, Sex and Zen 3D,torpedoed the careers of its lead actors, while also making them very famous, and there’s even a few words about Hong Kong film producers and their co-dependent relationship with Mainland money men. Fast, furious, funny, and ultimately leaving you with a serious buzz, by the time it’s all over you’ll want to marry a sweet-eyed, tiny-hooved mule wife of your very own.
North American Premiere
90 minutes, in Mandarin with English subtitles
Directed by: Ning Hao
Starring: Huang Bo, Chao Hong, Cheng Yuanyuan, Lei Jia-yin, Guo Tao, Liu Hua
It’s all about the money, honey: finding it, making it, losing it, spending it, and stealing it. Nowhere is this more true than in China where capitalism has juiced the country like 50,000 volts applied directly to the brain, making everyone more than a little cash-crazy. But if a director wants to talk about China’s crash course in capitalism he’s got to set his film in the past to satisfy state censors, so welcome to the gold fever of Ning Hao’s GUNS N’ROSES (named after his favorite band) set in 1930’s Manchuko, the puppet state in Mongolia established by the occupying Japanese Army. An industrial powerhouse ruled by the last Qing Emperor, Puyi (subject of Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor), it was a wild, diverse region full of White Russian exiles, Japanese opportunists, Chinese criminals, collaborating Koreans, and misunderstood Mongols (it’s also the setting for Kim Ji-Woon’s The Good, The Bad, and The Weird).
Lei Jia-yin plays a street hustler who strikes it rich when he’s rounded up and tossed in jail with a revolutionary freedom fighter who has an inside line on an incoming shipment of gold. Lei gets out with plans to cash in on this hot tip, but his cellmate’s comrades are suddenly squeezing him for the info. Lei comes in on their heist (masterminded by a glamorous screen star played by Tao Hong), but then he falls for the innocent daughter of the bank president they’re about to rob, and things get complicated. Plotlines multiply like horny rabbits, Ning Hao’s stable of comedy character actors pop up like wild mushrooms (from Huang Bo to Guo Tao), and everything goes spectacularly, explosively, insanely wrong.
With action by Yang Kil-Young (who did the choreography on Oldboy), GUNS N’ROSES marks Ning Hao’s return to filmmaking after he stalled hard with No Man’s Land. His frenetic and stylish Crazy Racer was one of the most talked-about movies at the 2009 New York Asian Film Festival, but his follow-up film, No Man’s Land, wasn’t approved by the Chinese censors and he lost three years of his career trying to get it out of motion picture purgatory (he ultimately failed, and it remains unseen to this day). All that pent-up energy, anger, and frustration comes exploding out of every frame of GUNS N’ROSES which is his chance to show that he can still thrill audiences with extreme comedy, hilarious action, and an ending that turns the entire film on its head…with a vengeance.
North American Premiere
115 minutes, in Korean with English subtitles
Directed by: Kim Ji-Woon & Yim Pil-Sung
Starring: Ryoo Seung-Beom, Kim Kang-Woo, Song Sae-Byuk
Kim Ji-Woon is one of Korea’s most fascinating directors, and a new movie from him is always an event. Whether it’s the stylized horror of A Tale of Two Sisters, the intense action of A Bittersweet Life, the wild spaghetti western madhouse of The Good, the Bad, and the Weird, or even the dark psychodrama, I Saw the Devil, he has consistently delivered some of the most challenging, gorgeously-shot, innovative genre movies to come out of Korea. Now he turns his big old brain to science fiction with the three-part omnibus film, DOOMSDAY BOOK, which has been in the making since 2006.
Originally planned to be a three-parter directed by Kim Ji-Woon, Yim Pil-Sung (director of Hansel & Gretel and Antarctic Journal), and Han Jae-Rim (The Show Must Go On), production started in 2006, and then fell apart when Han’s film (a retelling of an O. Henry short story) proved to be unworkable. With only two-thirds of the movie completed, it was shelved. Then, after a new influx of cash in 2010, Kim and Yim collaborated on the movie’s third segment, and now their three-parter about the end of the world is ready for the big screen.
Outlining three ways in which the world ends, DOOMSDAY BOOK starts with Yim Pil-Sung’s “A Brave New World,” a rollicking, hilarious short film about rampant pollution that leads to an outbreak of zombie-ism that robs man of even his ability to choose to die. The second short, Kim Ji-Woon’s “The Heavenly Creature” is about a future where robots have become our main source of manual labor. One robot, which resides at a Buddhist temple, achieves enlightenment, and the company that produces robot workers realizes that it’s got a crisis on its hands. The movie wraps up with the two directors collaborating on “Happy Birthday” about a young girl whose wish results in a giant meteor heading straight for the planet Earth. Injecting welcome doses of comedy into three hard science fiction scenarios, this two-fisted dose of apocalypse is the smartest sci fi flick to hit movie screens all summer.
North American Premiere
68 minutes, in Japanese with English subtitles
Directed by: Yoshihiro Nakamura
Starring: Gaku Hamada, Fumino Kimura, Nao Omori, Eri Ishida, Ryohei Abe
No one makes movies like Yoshihiro Nakamura. Whether it’s the exhilarating Fish Story, about a punk rock single that saves the world, the complex conspiracy thriller, Golden Slumbers, or the NYAFF 2011 Audience Award winner, A Boy and his Samurai, his movies are like Rubik’s Cubes whose solutions, as all the pieces snap into place, not only deliver an intellectual orgasm but usually reduce the audience to helpless tears. We’re closing the NYAFF 2012 with his latest movie, POTECHI (CHIPS), about petty thieves, potato chips, and baseball stars. A mere hour and eight minutes long, the reviewer for The Japan Times says that even though it’s “smaller in scope and less showy in effect, its climactic epiphany left me in tears. I won’t spoil it by saying why, just that this crazy world made more sense as the credits rolled.”
Based on a story by Kotaro Isaka, who also wrote Fish Story and Golden Slumbers, POTECHI (CHIPS) begins with two men sitting in the park. They look like they’re whiling away another lazy afternoon, until it dawns on the audience that they’re professional thieves. The younger of the two, Tadashi (Gaku Hamada from Fish Story) is trying to enlist the more seasoned veteran (played by Nao Omori) in his next job. Tadashi is obsessed with Ozaki, a pro baseball player who bats for the Sendai Kings and whose career is hitting the skids. These two things seem entirely unrelated, but over the course of the next hour, potato chips, baseball, high school memories, stalkers, and the theory of relativity will all smash together like electrons in a particle accelerator, and the Big Bang that results is the crack of a bat connecting with a ball, as Director Nakamura delivers another perfect home run.
The key to this film is that it’s set in Sendai, which was the epicenter of the 2011 earthquake that devastated the city, destroyed its port, and left hundreds of people dead. Nakamura’s film is an attempt to bandage this wound. It’s his way of reminding us that no matter what happens, we can’t fall too far. It may feel lonely sometimes, like we’re each isolated on a trapeze in the dark, working without a net. But when we lose our grip – there will always be someone to catch us.