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Claus Mueller


Claus Mueller is a Film Festival Ambassador to filmfestivals.com

He is based in New York where he covers the festival scene.


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2020 New York Asian Film Festival

The widespread embrace of streaming, the growth of established platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime, the establishment of new streamers such as Disney+ and HBO Max, and numerous smaller platforms set up by distributors and independent interest groups fundamentally shifted the film and television market. This shift has been accelerated by the rapidly rising sales of large smart television sets with superb image resolution and sound. The pandemic, now in its seventh month, has fastened our farewell to seeing movies in theaters.  The box office in the United States started declining years before the coronavirus arrived, as did the market value of the largest theater chain operators.  The response of some industry executives and affiliated journalists has been startling. These observers overlooked or ignored the fact that during the first quarter of 2020, 2.3 million new subscribers were added by Netflix. Netflix’s viewers increased their streaming time by 27% through mid-May. These executives, journalists, and observers wished for a return to a “new normal”, apparently disregarding  results  of early summer empirical  studies that showed close to 70%  of viewers prefer to view first run features at home. Watching television and movies at home was ranked as the second highest of the 15 most enjoyable activities during the pandemic and going to the movies was at the bottom of the activities most missed.  Though the fear of infection is a strong motivating factor in avoiding theatres, audiences have been developing new film viewing habits for years that have been solidified by the pandemic. Very low-ticket sales for thousands of newly re-opened theaters demonstrate that. If critics and editors like A.O. Scott from the New York Times and Brent Lang from Variety would be more in tune with the seismic cultural changes in the audience landscape they would no longer deplore and grieve  the loss of film art  as a source of meaning and community as Lang stated  “the collapse of movie theaters a cultural and economic catastrophe”.

 

For most, the demise of traditional movie theatres is hardly as traumatic an experience as it is for Lang, but it reflects a shift in visual leisure activities, in part determined by socio-economic factors. The home theater streaming of both upscale cinematic films and documentary productions as well as Hollywood fare signifies the future of the film market. Ironically, early summer 2020 research showed that audiences prefer to view the tentpole films at home rather than in the theatre. Of greater importance is that the expansion of the streaming universe, which generates more gateways for market oriented large festivals and creates new exposure and distribution avenues for smaller festivals guided by distinct but flexible themes for the captive audience they have been serving. The larger festivals adjusted to the pandemic by cancelling or postponing their 2020 dates or modifying their formats to hybrid versions by reaching the audience through the streaming of productions, zoom seminars, adding small dispersed venue sessions, and the resuscitation of drive-ins. To name but a few, Tribeca, Hot Docs, Telluride, Hong Kong and Mumbai cancelled outright. Others shifted to format changes like Cannes, Shanghai, Venice and the New York film festival.  Among the few traditional festivals that still plan to offer a full festival programs in the immediate future, Sundance and the Berlinale plan on providing new festival program structures in 2021. Because Berlin is the top film festival with the largest public audience it faces a challenging problem.   Many changes will involve the expansion of digital platforms to larger domestic and international markets. This has already been successfully demonstrated by Tribeca’s We Are One venture with YouTube in May 2020, billed as the largest global film festival, and smaller but established   film festivals like the Human Rights Watch Film Festival and the New York Asian Film Festival (NYAFF). I must note that some festivals have been rather reluctant to provide empirical data about their experiences with new festival formats.

 

As in its past 18 editions, the NYAFF, in cooperation with Film at Lincoln Center, from August 28 to September 12 offered a comprehensive and innovative line up of the latest popular and artistic film productions from Asia. The festival spotlighted woman filmmakers, new directorial debuts, departures from established genres, new storytelling approaches, and challenges to traditional cultural configurations.  As defined by its mission, NYAFF new filmmakers were introduced not previously featured in this country. These filmmakers reflected the Asian Avant Guard and the progressive status of its diverse cinema cultures and industries. Numerous productions in the program were from Hong Kong, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea. Kazakhstan, Bhutan, Indonesia, Vietnam and China were featured with one film each while Malaysia had three and the Philippines two. China’s relative absence compared to prior festivals was not surprising given the end of film productions in China caused by the coronavirus.  Surpassing and converging the formats of television and film the NYAFF 2020 program presented SF8, a series of eight 52-minute sci-fi drama crossover standalone films by prominent Korean filmmakers in its first international virtual edition premiere.

 

The NYAFF is not a submission-based festival but selects and curates through industry contacts and exposure to global film festivals and filmmakers. This year it had 44 feature films and the 8 episodes from the Korean SF8 series.  Despite limited exposure by the NYAFF to international film festivals   restricted in 2020 to the Berlinale and its European Film Market, the program size was comparable to last year’s edition. As also experienced by the Human Rights Watch film festival, no substantive problems were encountered requesting productions for the online streaming platform, in part because of the reputation of the festival and the assurance of  content security.

 

NYAFF’s emphasis on women filmmakers continued in the 2020 festival, as in prior editions. These films were selected after exhaustive review, with the selection also guided by NYAFF’s policy to showcase work that is under the radar. There were several empirical indicators of the success of the 2020 New York Asian Film Festival.  The audience increased by close to 20%, reflected by 7,000 unique views and close to $20,000.00 in ticket sales. A major shift was the 84% increase in the female audience aged 18-24. The digital version attracted viewers from Texas, California, Illinois and other states. Some of the hard-core original audience that had moved out of New York City reconnected with the festival again because the films shown were not available in their new locations.

 

Some of the issues encountered in the switch to streaming were in the handling of technical glitches and the managing of the audience given the diversity of program origination and audience locations. But a smaller team was needed with a focus on customers. The budget for the festival was smaller, but the festival was able to find new sponsors despite the tight time constraints and general funding limitations. Going digital did not prove to be an obstacle.  Programming for 2021 will start in the fall but planning may be problematic if the coronavirus persists. Access to new innovative films from Asia will hardly constrain the festival because there has been no significant decline in productions given the continued rise of streaming platforms which also holds for the United States.

 

Space does not permit coverage of all the significant films featured by the 2020 New York Asian Film Festival. Thus, this review can only cover a sample:

FOBIDDEN DREAM ,  Hur Jin-ho,  South Korea, 2019

This historical feature reconstructs the enduring relation between the brilliant Korean king Sejong and his equally gifted former slave Jang-sil and their eventual friendship. During his rule from 1418-1450 they introduced innovations to Korea, including the Korean alphabet and calendar, astronomical knowledge, scientific inventions, and rural reforms based on their ideas. After a carriage accident in 1442 involving the king, for which Jang-sil took the blame, his traces disappeared from the records and the filmmaker had to reconstruct them. This superbly shot story presents outstanding performances by the two lead actors and offers a faithful image of the period and its political transactions.  The innovations introduced by the king and his scientist-slave were firmly opposed by his court hierarchy beholden to the Chinese emperor. They could not approve of close work with a former slave but were more afraid of losing their privileges if China were to intervene. They sabotaged the King’s inventions and changes and told him that his actions may be popular with the people but would never be accepted by his aristocratic upper class.

 

The 2019 Hong Kong thriller A WITNESS OUT OF THE BLUE by Fung Chi-Chiang features a well-known criminal, Sean Wong, portrayed by Louis Koo, who had months earlier led a gang robbing a jewelry store. The loot disappeared, and all members of the gang were killed under mysterious circumstances.  The police officers and other criminals blamed him, and Sean tried to identify in this well constructed crime story who was behind the murder of the gang members and the theft of the loot. His investigation did not rely on violence and common Hong Kong rapid action scenes but on the laborious work of assembling a complicated but realistic puzzle where human factors with their weakness and strength prevail. What is startling in Sean’s quest for the truth is one witness, a parrot, who observed a murder and provides cues for solving the case.

Also, from Hong Kong was a superb 2020 feature, LEGALLY DECLARED DEAD by Kim-Wai Yuen, which turned into a box office hit when it released earlier this year in Hong Kong.   Based on a Japanese novel, this tightly developed story has unexpected twists and riddles with appealing and repelling characters.  A young insurance broker Yip gets involved in a case of an alleged and officially classified suicide which he had affirmed before as a witness since as he was present when the body was found. The parents of the deceased had requested the he be at their home to discuss an insurance matter. He suspects that the father murdered his son to collect insurance. He cannot convince his superiors to investigate since they want to close the case.  Not driven by career considerations Yip sticks to his suspicion and discovers a link between the insurance owner and his half-blind wife and that cases were settled for him by his company. Both seemed to be tied to a group involved in insurance scams.  Yip’s search for truth leads into researching their backgrounds with surprising results, creating a situation where the suspects threaten him and his companion.

 

GONE WITH THE LIGHT a Chinese film, by Runnian Dong from 2019 is a production difficult to identify as a narrative drama or a science fiction excursion despite having some elements from these genres.  Rather, it seems to be a character driven reflection on the nature of love.  Taking an original lever for his film, Dong has a bright light illuminating a city and some of the population disappearing mysteriously not to be heard from again. For politicians and scientists, the link between the light and disappearance cannot be explained though several strange accounts emerge. Most of the people who disappeared were couples and questions arose if their departures were prompted by the nature of their love, if they were deceitful, fractured or harmonious. Those left behind questioned their own attachments, the extent to which they were actually in love, and if they were engaged in honesty and deceits. The film is a well-orchestrated portrait of a society ruled by assumptions which are suddenly suspended when a massive external phenomenon occurs, such as the lights making people disappear, which they cannot deny and force people to reflect.

One feature which was most impressive is the first directorial debut by the Japanese actor Joe Odagiri THEY SAY NOTHING STAYS THE SAME from 2019 which premiered last year in Venice. His film excels for essential reasons like outstanding cinematography by Christopher Doyle, superb acting by Akira Emoto and his young companion Genzo, a comparable performance by fellow cast members and a slow moving yet compelling story with documentary overdone. Toichi is an aging boatman who has been ferrying villagers across a river for decades, for which a nearby bridge is constructed. Unattached, he lives alone next to the riverbank in a wooden shack with his existence unimpacted by the passage of years. It flows in a predictable way and Toichi appears to be a stoic entrenched part of his natural environment without radiating overt exciting emotions. His routinized life is fractured when he saves the life of a young girl floating down the river. They are living together yet in line with the mood and rhythm of the film there is virtually no communication between them. There are very few other rupturing sequences except for the dramatic wintertime ending. Odagiri gives the audience a beautiful production which makes the viewer pause to contemplate the sentiments of the film and the flow of time.

 

Claus Mueller     filmexchange@gmail.com

 

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