Friday, June 26, 2009

New York Asian Film Festival, Part I: Written By (2009) and The Longest Nite (1998)

As integral to summer in NYC as panicked Mets fans proposing ridiculous trades on WFAN (Jon Niese for Matt Holliday, maybe?), the New York Asian Film Festival is quickly becoming the most entertaining film series in the city. It has the plums to program genre actioners along with the art films that tend to solely populate regional surveys here. The breadth of the NYAFF is its great strength, as was evidenced early on.

The opening night film was Wai Ka-Fai's Written By (2009), a narratively dense family drama. Ka-Fai has been Johnnie To's right hand man for over a decade at Milkyway Productions, writing, directing, producing, and polishing the eccentric company's output. He's known mostly for his co-writing and co-directing duties with To on Fulltime Killer (2001), Running on Karma (2003), and Mad Detective (2007), but he's also helmed idiosyncratic projects of his own, including the 2006 comedy The Shopaholics. His latest solo jaunt is an ambitious but strangely flat exercise in experimental narrative. It's structured like a Russian Doll, stories within stories within stories.

Lau Ching-Wan (a Wai regular since their TVB days) plays a lawyer who dies in a car accident, leaving his daughter Melody blind and his wife and son devastated. Trying to rekindle happy memories, Melody starts writing a story where her father survived (although also blinded) while the rest of the family died. The film then follows this second story, as Lau and his Filipino maid aimlessly putter about their large home. Lonely and desperate, this invented Lau starts to write his own story, a more fantastical tale where the ghosts of his family return to aid him through his depression. These story layers remain discrete until the final act, when characters begin crossing between stories and tragedies beget tragedies.

For all of its conceptual complexity, Written By never takes off dramatically. The characters are ciphers, thinly drawn receptacles of grief that serve as pawns in Wai's narrative game-playing, not unlike Charlie Kaufman's embalmed Synecdoche, New York. As Wai draws his deterministic web, Melody flails without a discernible inner life. Her attempt to exorcize her memories through her imagination is a potent device, but it stagnates on the screen. Wai never finds a consistent style to visualize her plight, and his use of subpar special effects lends the piece a Saturday morning cartoon insubstantiality. It ends up a tantalizing disappointment.

There was no lack of inspired Wai, though, for there was also a rare screening of 1998's The Longest Nite, a rescue job he performed with Johnnie To. Credited director Patrick Yau was fired after he had completed five scenes, and the duo built an entirely new story around this feeble skeleton. It turned out to be a punishingly dark yakuza tale, as Tony Leung and Lau Ching-Wan's mobsters tumble into an abyss of violence and swapped identities.

The film is literally dark, using very little artificial light and framing the bald, glowering Lau as a black angel of the apocalypse. Leung, a twitchy crooked cop, is soon framed-up for a fall, and his only way out is to assume Lau's identity. Only one can survive, so they devour each other for the use of it, in a mirror-smashing finale redolent of Welles' Lady from Shanghai. In the Q&A that followed (available online), Wai admits this final battle was hatched on the spot, as they needed 10 minutes to fill and had little money. So they rented an empty warehouse, shaved Leung's head, and had them beat the shit out of each other. It's a miraculous bit of improvisation, and the film is a testament to Wai and To's adaptive creativity.

More to come...

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Blogger Mike Lyon said...

A shame it's a turkey; I look forward to further reviews!

9:19 PM  

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