By Simon Abrams
I’ve been attending the New York Asian Film Festival (NYAFF) for eight of its 10 years. From 2004-2006 I volunteered at the festival, giving out Audience Award ballots and prize forms for the give-aways that they hold before every screening. Sitting in on screenings of Johnnie To’s Running on Karma and Ryuhei Kitamura’s Azumi were life-changing experiences. I owe a lot of my interest in contemporary Asian cinema to the Subway Cinema collective, festival organizers par excellence.
The Subway Cinema gang are textbook underdogs. They went from primarily financing NYAFF on their own credit cards to showing movies at the Film Society at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater. Their labor of love has become a major cultural event and now, with Lincoln Center at their backs, they can no longer be ignored. I recently talked with Grady Hendrix and Daniel Craft, two of the five Subway Cinema programmers, about their favorite films at the festival, what films they wish they could get and where they feel their influence has been most immediately felt.
Ok, I want to start by asking each of you, what was the one film you wanted to get at this year’s festival that you couldn’t?
Daniel Craft: Personally? [Live-action scifi manga adaptation] Space Battleship Yamato.
Grady Hendrix: For me, it was [Big budget Hong Kong sexploitation sequel] Sex and Zen 3D: Extreme Ecstasy.
That was at Cannes!
Hendrix: Yeah, it was screening in the marketplace.
Craft: Most laymen assume that we get whatever we want. So when a film is missing, like Sex and Zen or Yamato, they assume we just didn’t want it. It’s always, “Oh, you don’t want Yamato,” and we respond, “God, no! [laughs] We tried!”
Hendrix: This year was actually pretty hard, I think. There was just a lot of competition.
That’s a shame. Favorite film from Japan at this year’s festival?
Craft: I have to say Milocrorze: A Love Story.
Craft: I’m really looking forward to watching that with a crowd. I don’t have a personal favorite. But that’s the one I can’t wait to see with a crowd.
Hendrix: Yeah, for me, I guess it’s Ringing in Their Ears. It’s by [director Yu Irie,] the guy that did [hip hop documentaries] 8000 Miles 1 and 2. I liked it [Ringing in Their Ears] when I first saw it but it’s really grown on me.
Craft: That’s like me and 8000 Miles. That movie palpably grew on me every minute after it finished.
Hendrix: I agree, I agree. I think this movie [Ringing in Their Ears] is one of the best music films to come along in a while.
Craft: Well, Milocrorze has a lot of music. It’s a musical.
Hendrix: Actually, Milocrorze has the giant musical numbers in it. For some reason, it seems like Japan does music movies better than anybody else.
All right, the next biggest country represented at the festival: South Korea.
Hendrix: Ok, you go first, Dan. I don’t want to copy you.
Craft: Haunters. It’s one of those movies that I went into not expecting a lot. There’s other high-profile stuff and you kind of know what kind of film you’re going to get; you just wonder if it’s a well-done one or not. But Haunters kept surprising me with what it turned out to be. And I think it’s a really effective scifi actioners that slowly becomes both of those things as it goes along. It doesn’t feel like one and then it slowly unfolds and you think, “Holy crap, this is an action movie!” So that’s mine.
Hendrix: I have two movies I really love from Korea. One is Bedevilled, which is getting a lot of attention. So I’m going to use my time to talk about the other one, Battlefield Heroes. I’m a huge sucker for history films. That’s [director] Lee Joon-Ik’s thing. His approach is so—I hate to say irreverent. That sounds so lame. But he’s very irreverent. It [Battlefield Heroes] reminds me a little of a Terry Gilliam movie: there are musical numbers in the middle, there are all these flights of fancy, there’s an attack by farm animals launched via catapults.
I really, really liked it [Battlefield Heroes] and I’m worried it’s not going to find its audience. It’s the movie that made Lee quit the film business. It did not do very well and so he quit. And he’s going to be here! He hedged his bets: I think he quit the commercial film business. Since his last movie didn’t do very well, I don’t know what that means exactly.
Dan, when you mentioned filmmakers that you knew, I imagine you meant [action choreographer and director] Ryoo Seung-wan.
I can’t imagine someone watching [his new movie] The Unjust and thinking that it’s like what he’s done in the past.
Craft: No, but you expect a certain level of quality from him. You’re not surprised when a Ryoo Seung-wan film is good. Haunters came out of the blue.
Hendrix: It actually reminds me a little bit of Unbreakable. Haunters has a really nicely staged action scene at the end of it that you really don’t expect. The whole subway sequence really took me by surprise.
The next biggest market represented at the fest is Hong Kong.
Hendrix: I’m gonna be a sucker and I’m not gonna say a new movie. My favorite thing we’re showing from Hong Kong is [Tsui Hark’s 1995 martial arts classic] The Blade, hands-down. The Blade is amazing. We finally got Warner Brothers to dig up a print from their Kansas City depot. It took them forever. At first, they sent us The Blade with Wesley Snipes in it.
They found this print, they signed a contract with us and then they passed a new rule in their repertory rental division. They’re not going to rent movies out that aren’t rated anymore; they’re just not going to do it anymore. The Blade’s never been rated. They were really nice to let us keep our screening because we were already booked but I don’t going to be able to screen it after us, at least not for the foreseeable future. I can’t wait to see this movie again and the fact that this might be the last time this print will be shown is nice.
.Craft: Not that we’re not showing other new Hong Kong stuff or that other stuff isn’t good but honestly, yeah, the best thing in our Hong Kong line-up is The Blade. Maybe the best in our Hong Kong line-up is Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain. That’s not a slam at the current crop, that’s like showing a Francis Ford Coppola retrospective and saying that the best film there is The Godfather. Well, of course it is.
Hendrix: Apparently, the projectionist took a look at that new print of Dragon Inn. They hadn’t done a full test of it but they said it looks really good.
Craft: All our retro Hong Kong screenings are exciting to me.
Hendrix: When I rewatched Zu to write the blurb, I was really surprised at they cover a lot of shortcomings in the special effects by really fast cutting. There’s a cut every 0.001 of a second. I’d be really curious to see how it plays on the big screen; I’ve never seen it on a big screen. I can just imagine people getting overloaded and their heads popping like light bulbs.
Nice. Would you say the Hark films are your favorite retro titles at this year’s festival?
Hendrix: For me it is, oh yeah. I mean, I love Battle Royale. I think it’s the best Japanese movie of the last ten, fifteen years or so. But I feel much more personally connected to the Tsui Hark stuff. That’s what I started out loving.
Craft: And that’s how I learned what Subway Cinema is.
Hendrix: Really?! That was the first thing you came to, our  Hark retrospective?
Craft: Uh huh, uh huh, yeah. [laughs] I’ve seen the last time these films were projected.
Now that the festival is 10 years old, what films have you seen people filtering out of the theaters and being most turned onto a filmmaker by?
Craft: I can say that one of the most visible signs of our—this is a pretentious word—influence or something is Hausu. Hadn’t been heard of by anybody in years but [two years ago] we dug it up and show it. Not only have people seen it and it’s now running at the IFC Center at midnight on weekends. It’s one of those things that came from our enthusiasm for it and our audience’s enthusiasm for it. We’ve watched out stuff get picked up and that’s nice but never something that goes that far—it has a Criterion disc!
Hendrix: You’re right. That thing will not die. I was having lunch at this event thing seven or eight months ago and somebody from Janus Films, who did the theatrical releases of Hausu, told me that all they’d been doing for the last three months prior to that was trying to find another Hausu. “Find me another Hausu! Find me something we own the rights to that’s like Hausu.” And we’re like, “There’s nothing.” They’re desperate to replicate that success.
[Fellow Subway Cinema programmer] Marc [Walkow] had known that they had a master of it and it was just sitting there on the shelf. They really just didn’t know what to do with it. They really didn’t believe in the film. It had a reputation of being a really cheap, old Japanese horror movie. And we were like, “Jesus, there’s a master of this thing?! A digital master of this thing that’s just sitting there?” So we did some begging, yeah. They had it all along and didn’t know it.
Craft: One of my personal things is—I don’t know how much of an impact it’s had but if it had any impact at all, I’m really proud that at least four theaters-full of people now know who [Indonesian filmmaker] Joko Anwar is. I’m happy to show Tsui Hark films; you know, I’m happy for fans when we show those films. But that’s a known quantity; but both Kala and The Forbidden Door are a-mazing. Maybe 700 people saw it? That’s 700 Americans who would have never seen such a good film from Indonesia. Even if it’s a small impact, I’ve shared his two movies and his very existence with several hundred people.
Hendrix: Every year, we feel like there are one or two movies that we’re going to get personally connected with. Like last year, I got really invested in Jackie Chan vehicle Little Big Soldier. This movie played to an Upper West Side audience arthouse crowd and we had two sold out screenings. One of them was largely made up of Upper West Side arthouse people and they came out raving about it. That was really it. It’s got a distributor now; I’m not sure what they’re going to do with it.
It’s just this random thing. This year, I’m really invested in Ringing in Their Ears. It’s ridiculous.
Craft: I think Fish Story’s success can be attributed to us, too.
Hendrix: Oh, absolutely, 100%. Nobody knew that movie before we showed it.
The New York Asian Film Festival continues now through July 14th at the Walter Reade Theater and Japan Society. For more information, go here.
Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic whose column Simon Says appears every Friday at PressPlay. His film reviews and features have been featured in the Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, Extended Cut.