New York Asian Film Festival Is Having a Southeast Asian Moment


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A scene from “Hamog,” Ralston Jover’s film about four Filipino street kids, at the New York Asian Film Festival.

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Cinema One Originals

At the New York Asian Film Festival, Asian film means movies mostly from the continent’s Big Three: Japan, South Korea and the Chinese-language cinemas of Hong Kong, China and Taiwan. That’s as it should be — those countries dominate Asian film production, and ticket buyers want their Hong Kong cop flicks and Japanese gore fests, their Korean dramas and Chinese kung fu spectaculars.

This year’s 15th edition of the festival — which runs from Wednesday through July 9 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the SVA Theater — will sate those appetites as thoroughly as ever, from the Japanese police-corruption saga “Twisted Justice,” on opening night, to the pervy Taiwanese surveillance-porn drama “The Tenants Downstairs,” at the closing gala.

But other parts of Asia have active, even thriving, film industries as well, and the festival’s programmers have made a special effort to seek out work from those countries.

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John Lloyd Cruz, center, in “Honor Thy Father,” Erik Matti’s Filipino feature.

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Reality Entertainment

In this festival, there are seven films from Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam; that’s within shouting distance of the 11 entries from South Korea, 13 from Japan and 19 from the Chinese-language countries. For this year, at least, the New York Asian Film Festival is having a Southeast Asian moment.

“Clearly, these cinemas and industries were underrepresented,” Samuel Jamier, executive director of Subway Cinema (which produces the festival with the Film Society of Lincoln Center) and lead programmer of this year’s edition, wrote in an email. “So I felt it was time for us to remedy this.”

The festival’s Southeast Asian films can require some adjusting of expectations. Generally speaking, budgets are lower, and crews and actors less seasoned, and the films can have rough edges.

But there’s an immediacy — a raw vitality in storytelling — in the best Southeast Asian films that can be lacking in the most polished and high-tech Japanese, South Korean and Chinese productions. Mr. Jamier agrees with me on that, writing, “I feel there’s a different energy, or vibe perhaps, an innocence that’s specific to these films.” Here, a few highlights:

“Hamog” Nowhere is the Southeast Asian film energy more evident than in Ralston Jover’s film, “Hamog” (“Haze”), which will be the festival’s centerpiece presentation on July 1. A Filipino descendant of Hector Babenco’s great muckraking Brazilian drama, “Pixote,” the film focuses on four street kids who sleep in an abandoned drain pipe lined with cardboard and rob drivers stuck in Manila’s epic traffic jams. Alternately tragic, bittersweet and frightening, the film traces the consequences for the kids when a shakedown of a taxi driver goes sideways.

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Sunny Suwanmethanon in “Heart Attack aka Freelance,” a romantic comedy by the Thai director Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit.

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Gmm Tai Hub

Like “Pixote,” “Hamog” builds considerable power, despite its narrative stumbles. It kills off its most engaging character just as the story seems to get started, and after spending a half-hour on a moving and detailed account of how to procure a funeral for an unclaimed child, it circles back and starts over again, picking up a second story line that it had seemed to drop.

But Mr. Jover never bores you — the awkwardness and occasional purple streak in his screenplay are more than made up for by the zest of his direction, Pipo Domagas’s fluid cinematography and gripping performances from a pair of child actors, Bon Andrew Lentejas and Therese Malvar.

“Honor Thy Father” Erik Matti’s Filipino feature, written by Michiko Yamamoto, shares a pulp-fiction sensibility with “Hamog,” though it doesn’t reach the same level of intensity. The veteran Filipino television star John Lloyd Cruz plays Edgar, a man with a past who hopes to go straight when his father-in-law’s church-based investment scheme appears to be a winner. But he, and we, suspect that it’s too good to be true, and pretty soon he’s headed to the mountainside mining village where he grew up to beg for help from his estranged family.

“Honor Thy Father” shares, with most of the other Southeast Asian selections, a sense of moral outrage — Mr. Jamier wrote that the programmers this year kept seeing films with “a realization that something’s not right with the world.” Edgar and his wife are among the innocent victims of her father’s fraud, but that doesn’t save them, because their friends’ and neighbors’ get-rich-quick dreams are too powerful, too desperate.

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Apinya Sakuljaroensuk, left, and Napasasi Surawan in “Grace.”

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Kantana Motion Pictures

“Jagat” A similar sense of desperation is at the heart of Shanjhey Kumar Perumal’s “Jagat” (“Brutal”), set in the Tamil community in northern Malaysia in the early 1990s. Indian immigrants live in poverty, despite the government’s promises of assistance, and a young boy (Harvind Raj) is caught between satisfying his angry, education-obsessed father and emulating his uncle, a neophyte thug who seems to be playing out the poses of the television gangster dramas the boy consumes. “Jagat” is on the earnest and didactic side, but Mr. Perumal exhibits some assurance in his directing debut and gets a winning performance by Mr. Raj.

“Grace” An altogether more lurid experience is offered by Pun Homchuen and Onusa Donsawai’s “Grace,” a Thai slasher movie with pretensions to social commentary. A story of jealousy among rival teenage Facebook idols, its message is essentially that the internet equals rape, torture and murder (by lamp, hammer and screwdriver). Also, never date a guy named Earth.

“Heart Attack aka Freelance” The perils of our digital existence are explored in a much more charming way in this satirical romantic comedy by the Thai director Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit. A graphic designer (Sunny Suwanmethanon) who airbrushes blemishes for a living — during sleepless four- and five-day Photoshop marathons — develops an unsightly rash. A pretty doctor (Davika Hoorne) recommends that he stop working around the clock and stop ordering the shrimp dumplings from 7-Eleven. We can tell that what he’s allergic to is the loneliness of modern life and that the cure is sitting across the examining room from him, but in true rom-com style, it takes him and the doctor two hours of screen time to figure it out.

Or do they? No spoilers here. “Heart Attack” doesn’t actually need to be two hours long, but its sendup of the 24-7 life is consistently amusing. “Does this temple have wifi?” the hero asks in the middle of a funeral, and a helpful Buddhist monk gives him the password for his home network (indiansubcontinent79). Call it Southeast Asian problems.

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