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Claus Mueller


Claus Mueller is filmfestivals.com  Senior New York Correspondent

He is based in New York where he covers the festival scene, professor at Hunter University, accredited member of the Foreign Press Center,  U.S. Department of State NY.


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NYAFF 2021 New York Asian Film Festival 2021

Celebrating its 20th anniversary, the New York Asian Film Foundation in cooperation with Film at Lincoln Center and the SVA theater held the New York Asian Film Festival (NYAFF) 2021 from August 6th to the 22nd. NYAFF screened over 60 films to New York and nationwide audiences, with in-person and virtual formats. NYAFF is the most important festival for popular Asian cinema. It has been described as New York’s best film festival (Village Voice) and one of the city’s most valuable events (New York Times). The festival added dates from August 23 to September 1, screening seven films  to celebrate Taiwan’s Ghost Month, and “a new era of terror”.

In 2021 NYAFF, had the largest film lineup they had ever offered. It included the traditional life time awards honorees and the new Asian American Focus section.  Among the honorees were the acclaimed Hong Kong New Wave filmmaker Ann Hui for her lifetime work spanning four decades. Her 1981 film THE STORY OF WOO VIET was screened at NYAFF 2021 in tribute to its 40th anniversary. The Uncaged Award for Best Feature Film focused on first or second productions by risk taking filmmakers and showcased the Chinese ANIMA by Cao Jinling on environmental issues. Asian American Focus selected the groundbreaking SNAKEHEAD on illegal migration to USA, also selected by the Asian American International Film Festival. NYAFF also present LIMBO, an new exceptional Hong Kong cinema noir feature by Cheang Pou-soi, rarely accessible to American audiences.

Whereas NYAFF restricted its 2020 screening to an all-virtual format, its anniversary edition showed more than half of its films in theaters, also offering a free outdoor screening of the classic DRAGON INN AKA NEW DRAGON GATE INN. Choosing both in-person and on-line presentations this year, NYAFF was in an excellent position to expand its audience in the communities it serves. NYAFF 2021 increased exposure to the diversity of Asian filmmaking and the cinematic response to the issues and problems confronted by Asian communities all over the world. The 2021 program covered a large spectrum of themes and genres ranging from action thrillers to comedy, drama, horror, and art-house films. The films included issue oriented productions frequently made in a documentary fashion. The lineup presented numerous world and international premieres, with 37 films shown for the first time in North America and the US. Productions originated in Japan, Hong Kong, China, South Korea, Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan, Thailand, Kazakhstan, and Singapore. For the first time Myanmar and the US were presented. The festival receives support and cooperation from New York State agencies, the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office in New York, the New York Taipei and Korean Cultural Centers, the Japan Foundation of New York and Variety, its media partner.

LIMBO, 2021, directed by Hong Kong’s Cheang Pou-soi premiered earlier this year at the Berlinale’s European Film Market. Shot in compelling high contrast black and white, often in the late afternoon or night hours, it is a breathtaking neo-noir depiction of the seamy underside world of Hong Kong’s Canton district. The settings of LIMBO are immured in trash, debris, garbage, discarded furniture and cars, inhabited by those rejected by society. The inhabitants are addicts, small time gangsters, and the homeless that live or work there with nowhere else to go to.  In this setting a rookie policeman, Willi, carefully following official regulations, must team up with Cham, a driven seasoned cop focused on solving crime rather than obeying rules. Their task is to find an obsessive murderer that kills and dismembers women, mostly prostitutes, from  Canton. Cham has a strong personal interest in the case. A young female criminal provides leads on the killing of Cham’s child and impairment of his wife. LIMBO offers stark portrayals of killing, violence, and crimes typical for Hong Kong films, including fast paced car and on foot pursuits. There is also a never-ending amount of rain adding to the bleak, grim, and sordid atmosphere. Apart from the disputations between Willie and Cham about rule breaking, Cham’s quest to identify a murderer by assembling pieces of an apparent puzzle mesmerizes.  LIMBO holds a viewers’ attention with its compelling story line, bleak dystopian setting, and superb acting, particularly that of Kiu Cya, who plays Wong To, the informer.

SNAKEHEAD, 2021, from the USA, was produced over 7 years  by the  Chinese-American director Evan Jackson Leong. The film is Evan Jackson Leong’s first fictional production. SNAKEHEAD is a documentary style thriller reflecting the real-life experiences of a Chinese woman, Sister Tse, smuggled into the United States. Tse  joins the New York based Chinese family syndicate that her into the county in order to pay off the $57,000 debt she owes and in hopes of finding her child. Coming from an impoverished background and having been sold into prostitution in China, Tse rises from her lowly position in the syndicate’s restaurant to become senior member of the family gang. Tse is embraced by Dai Mah, the matriarchal head of the gang’s family’s business. Dai Mah prefers Tse over her criminal sons. Tse has willpower, intelligence and strategic aptitude. Dai Mah grooms Tse for leadership of the family syndicate. Tse becomes a snakehead, charged with bringing the Chinese fleeing their country to the United States, an unusual position for an outsider like Tse. Behind her overt criminal activities, Tse is solely motivated by finding her missing child. Dai Mah holds Tse responsible for having given up her child but is willing give Tse her daughter back if she agrees to take over the business. Grounded in real events, the feature captures all facets of the illegal migration trade. The skills, technical, financial, practical, or otherwise, which are all mastered by Tse. Negotiations with fellow gangsters. Contacts with migrants kept in captivity until they can pay off their debts. Handling cargo ships and cars to transport illegal migrants. Fighting of marauders trying to rob Tse and her shipments. The police seeking her cooperation after of numerous immigrants are frozen to death and her fingerprints are found. Tse also shows her capacity for empathy, interacting with others as marginalized as she once was. Kitchen workers in need of help because they cannot afford to bring their families to the US. With the close cooperation of the New York City Chinatown community, Leong produced a captivating authentic film, replicating Tse’s environment and actions but also drawing on the kick start production resources of her audience.

The South Korean THE PRAYER, 2021, is an intriguing investigation of a dystopian future defined by the application of artificial intelligence in everyday life, using  of increasingly sophisticated robots. Directed by Min Kyu-dong, PRAYER is the opening production of  the Korean science-fiction SF8 anthology series. SF8 surpasses similar series by  articulating oft neglected issues. THE PRAYER is set in a nursing home where robots with a stunning similarity to real life nurses take care of the residents under expensive contracts paid by their families. These robots are manufactured by a German company that creates and constantly improves robots with enhanced human abilities to meet the demands of corporate nursing homes and other institutional operators. Gan Ho Joon, a robot nurse, is responsible for an ailing mother at the Paradise Nursing Home who has been in a coma for many years. Gan also plays close attention to a frequently visiting daughter who observes that the number of such homes has increased. As distinct from other robot nurses, Gan Ho Joon is equipped with the ability of analyzing the mental processes of her clients and becomes an expert on predicting suicide rates. When she realizes that the daughter may kill herself, she considers ending her suffering by terminating the mother’s life. Gan is aware that doing so violates both the rules and conduct of robots, and the norms governing human behavior. Frequent animated discussions with a catholic nun, Sabina, cannot resolve Gan’s dilemma nor answer whether robots are obliged to prevent euthanasia or can terminate the life to end suffering. Sabina cannot tell Gan if robots can pray and converse with God. For the manufacturer of these robots, such questioning and actions simply reflect programming mistakes. PRAYER is superbly staged and enacted with a stellar performance by Lee Yoo-young playing both roles of Gan Ho Joon and the suicidal daughter. Slightly distracting are the contrived special effects surrounding the last stimulating discussion between Sabina and Gan Ho Joon.

First time filmmaker Cao Jinling’s  2021 Chinese production, ANIMA, is an extraordinary and persuasive exploration of environmental issues faced in the eighties. She combines excellent cinematography and a superb score with effective story telling. Given her background in literature and the academia, Jinling manages to prompt reflection by weaving in the background and customs of locals the context of nature in their lives. On the contrary side are environmental incursion by groups having no normative connection  to the areas they destroy, driven by the need to make a living without having to consider effective environmental policies during the period ANIMA covers.

In the early 80’s, in the sparsely settled region of China’s northern Inner Mongolia, Moerdaoga, virgin woodland is still inhabited by the Ewenki tribes for which nature is a gift from heaven. Their culture is rooted in the perception that the basis for existence is their relationship to the forest and its animals. This bonding connection is expressed in song. Interactions convey that old and tall trees as inhabited by spirits. The slaughter of bears is a sin bringing a dreadful fate to the killer. For some Ewenkis, spiritual bonds have been weakening because their traditional life style is no longer feasible. Others  try to preserve the environment by fighting the systematic destruction of their forests. Jinling presents four characters, the brothers Linzi, his older sibling Tutu, their father, and Chun. The brothers work in a logging team. Though Linzi dislikes his work and preserves traditional beliefs as his father does, Tutu does not mind destroying the forest. Tutu feels doomed because long ago he killed a bear when Linzi fell into a cave. Chun, a woman hunter living in the forest,  becomes close to the brothers. Chun’s survival in the harsh forest environment throughout the year seems to have granted her  a greater strength than the subdued Linzi and his overtly aggressive brother. Tutu is attracted to Chun. They get married in a traditional ceremony with the blessing of the father and start living in  the forest. Jinling offers a finely tuned portrait of her four characters but also shows how loggers work and the damage they cause, uprooting the forests which in turn impact the life Tutu and his family living there. Now, the whole region is closed for forest restauration and few people are left. Jinling appears to tell the  viewers that once the spiritual bond between people and their natural environment is broken by invading economic forces, there is little one can do, a message most appropriate for our time. Cao Jinling received NYAFF’s  Uncaged Award for Best Film for ANIME.

 

 

Claus Mueller,  filmexchange@gmail.com  New York City

 

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