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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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New York Asian Film Festival 2019

The New York Asian Film Festival (NYAFF) provides the most comprehensive survey of current productions from East, North, and South Asia. NYAFF 2019 showcased premieres by known and new film makers. NYAFF included directors whose work has never been shown in the United States before. 30 foreign directors and 9 actors participated in Q&A sessions as well as several free seminars sponsored by HBO. The festival was held from June 28 to July 11 at several Lincoln Center venues and from July 11 to 14 at the School of Visual Arts. NYAFF was organized by the New York Asian Film Foundation and Film at Lincoln Center with Samuel Jamier, the former head of the annual Japan Cuts film festival, serving as the executive director of NYAFF and President of the NY Asian Film Foundation. This year was the 18th edition of the festival, which has retained an emphasis on popular Asian cinema focusing on a younger trending audience following its move from Film Anthology Archives 10 years ago though the NYAFF is now also holding the annual  Old School Kung Fu film fest there.

The festival theme for the 2019 edition was Eighteen – Too Young To Die. This theme combined high concept productions with action driven thrillers and moral tales which frequently had an upbeat orientation. The program featured the growing presence of features from China (11), the Hong Kong Panorama (10), and New Cinema from Japan (11), South Korea (9) and Taiwan (4), retaining their remarkable positions.  Following its core philosophy, the festival introduced the audience to film makers from Indonesia, Singapore, and Thailand in the South Asian Vanguard section, showing one film each and two films respectively from the Philippines and Vietnam.  Like virtually all other new films selected for the festival, the films from these countries were, except for SIGNAL ROCK from the Philippines, North America premieres.  Most film going audiences are not aware of the fact that film production in Asia, specifically in China and India, is growing rapidly. This is in great part due to the expansion of focus on relatively underserved middle and upper middle-class communities. At the same time there is stagnation or decline of film productions in Western countries.

The 2019 New York Asian Film Festival was supported by the Hong Kong Economic & Trade Office, the Confucius Institute Headquarters, the China Institute, the Korean Cultural Center NY, the Taipei Cultural Center in New York and enjoyed the backing of 23 sponsors. Like other festivals, it generates a significant portion of its budget through ticket sales.  The festival work is carried out by a staff of 28 and 40 volunteers.

 NYAFF had an audience of about 12,00 this year. For Samuel Jamier, growth of the audience and expansion of the festival program is not as essential as adequate representation of each country. Thematic changes this year were reflected in more arthouse and independent films than in earlier festival editions, specifically productions from Korea and China.  More prominent in this year’s program were music and performance including the KOKDU: A STORY OF GUARDIAN ANGELS screening and concert, a blockbuster featuring 22 traditional musicians brought in from Korea and attracting 1,000 people, the biggest event  NYAFF  ever organized.   Queried about political films questioning existing power arrangements, Jamier identified several in the Hong Kong line up which mirror the issues of the countries they came from, connecting US viewers with film makers but also with the people who watched the films there. In that sense NYAFF is political but it does not offer an agenda for the countries shown represented. Films selected are based on formal rather than political criteria. THE ATTORNEY, for example, depicts socio-political issues.  Jamier emphasized that films are chosen by the NYAFF team and that there are no recommendations by supporting agencies for specific films. If there have been informal suggestions, they were turned down.  There has never been a programming interference by official agencies.  With respect to productions directly submitted to the festival, their number is growing each year and there may be the need for a submissions section.  Challenges are encountered in the funding area and in the management of a growing work force and unpaid volunteers, larger than in previous years.  There are changes, as Samuel Jamier expressed it, “Always, but at the same time, we want to keep what makes the festival’s identity at the center of our programming: great accessible storytelling”.

THE ATTORNEY,  Hong Kong, Wong Kwok Fai, 2019

This tightly structured film is a legal action thriller providing a close-up study of a criminal murder case where powerful corporate figures try to frame Tsano, a worker from a poor class background, for the murder of a woman. A well-known establishment lawyer named Lui, known for many legal victories and only one defeat, decides to take Tsano’s case. This decision is spurred by Tsano’s mother.  Lui is forced to confront the powerful opposition of the political and economic establishment which conspires to take over Hong Kong’s legislative council in order to pursue lucrative real estate ventures. Tsano was found unconscious next to the dead body of Agui, daughter of billionaire Kwok and is imprisoned as the sole suspect. Lui investigates and breaches legal  rules he had followed in the past in order to discover evidence that Kwok’s nephew had an affair with Agui while he was running for office and was about to get married to someone else. The nephew’s father is a wealthy real estate tycoon behind the political party which has nominated his son and is also funded Kwok. The son is subpoenaed and must testify.  Both brothers had the goal of controlling the political process of Hong Kong, a coalition that ruptured during the murder proceedings.  Lui’s investigation reveals endemic corruption and its impact on politics and the legal process. The film, like its White Storm 2 festival counterpart, resolves the criminal issues addressed.

THE TERROR: INFAMY, USA, Josef Kubota Wladyka, 2019

With the apparent breakdown of the boundaries between television and film, the growth of non-theatrical distribution platforms and the decline of traditional theatrical attendance, the inclusion of the first segment of the series produced by AMC was a breakthrough addition to the NYAFF program. The subject of this series could not have been timelier and more topical: the fate of about 120,000 Japanese Americans who were interned from December 1941 to the end of world war II in detention camps on the suspicion that they may collaborate with the enemy. Many decades later in the 80s, a congressional commission resolved that there was no military justification for the detentions and that “solely racial prejudice, hysteria shaped by the war  and the failure of political leadership”  resulted in the detention policy . Bigotry and the pervasive hostility against immigrants have remained characteristic of the United States and are now embraced by large segments of the population and encouraged by the government.  Against the background of the current plans by the US government to establish detention camps for “illegal” immigrants where their families can be held without time limits, THE TERROR: INFAMY is more than timely. The series is very persuasive as a superbly set period piece. The core cast are all Japanese or Japanese-Americans. Exceptions are the director who is Japanese Polish American, and the actor of lead character’s girlfriend comes from a Mexican-American background.   They have all lived through or have relatives who experienced the culture of immigrant exclusion and the problems of dual identities. The actors provide the authenticity that makes this series convincing, reinforced by the frequent use of subtitled Japanese.

As the first program of the series shows there are strong strains of the homeland’s cultural tradition, the split and frequent conflict between the first generation from Japan who migrated to the US and their children born here. The elders frequently have the conviction that punishing Japanese kaidan ghosts arise when traditional values are broken or abandoned. They are hold onto on to the folklore and kaidan ghost tales of the old country.

 The center of the series is the Nakayaman family who live on Terminal Island where the father Henry and grandfather Yamato make a living as fishermen.  Their oldest son Chester is a photographer who prefers speaking English as opposed to his parents Japanese.  He wants to leave the island with Luz, his Latin-American girlfriend, whom he hides from his family in an act of rebellion.  His parents find out and consider the liaison a shameful violation of what the family stands for. When the deportation to the detention camps starts, the father, strongly believing in the US, reminds Chester to stay patriotic as an American.  

SAMURAI MARATHON, Japan, Bernard Rose, 2019

This feature is a fast moving, entertaining, and compelling film based on the true story of a peculiar reaction to the arrival of Americans in Japan. In the 1850s, U.S. ships sailed into Japan hoping to break Japan’s isolation and open it to the West.  In an early sequence, Commodore Perry tries to sway the local feudal lords and samurais with fire arms and bourbon, resulting in their utter surprise about these unknown arms and the manners of the Americans. The feudal lord Itakura prepares his forces for a military encounter by arranging a marathon race with the winner getting anything he desires.  But the race is mistaken by the shogan in the capital as an attempted uprising and he sends a group of assassins with an American gun armed leader to suppress the uprising. There are some bloody encounters when the assassins enters Itakura’s domain but the spy who misled the shogun takes Itakura’s side and with the help of Yuko, Itakura’s daughter who had joined the marathon without knowledge of  her father, prevails over he shogun.  Princess Yuko becomes the leading and most impressive character in this samurai story and the ensemble cast assembled by Rose recedes behind her.  This splendid, opulent, and lush period film is enhanced by an impressive Philip Glass score.

 THE WHITE STORM 2 DRUG LORDS, Hong Kong, Herman Yau, 2019

This melodramatic festival closing film extravaganza is a sequel to the 2013 thriller WHITE STORM which centerd on police and their struggle with drug gangs. The new action thriller was released July 5th in mainland  China and enjoyed great commercial success. Like other features in the festival, the film has an upbeat orientation while simultaneously incorporating dramatic elements such as bloodshed, drugs, a superbly staged chase scene, and massive shoot outs.  Tin is a former gangster who has become an wealthy business leader and embraced the fight against the criminal drug trade. Tin is motivated by his lawyer wife and the overdose of his teenage son. His antagonist, Dizang, never left the criminal trade and has assumed the position of the drug overload of Hong Kong. Tin prevails after offering a huge bounty to whoever kills Dizang and securing the cooperation of a senior narcosquad officer. What attracts most viewers are the extraordinary visual elements of the film and the appealing story.

 Claus Mueller   filmexchange@gmail.com

 

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