Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 12, 2009

2009 New York Asian Film Festival

Filed under: Asia,Film — louisproyect @ 5:15 pm

Last week I mentioned to my wife that very few things keep me committed to the hedge fund manager’s playground that Manhattan has become other than the ethnic restaurants we love exploring and the film festivals that feature the offbeat and the interesting. Despite being a film enthusiast, I have only stepped foot in a neighborhood theater once this year and that was to see Sam Raimi’s “Drag Me to Hell” (not recommended).

But when I received word a couple of months ago that the yearly New York Asian Film Festival was scheduled to open on June 19th, I felt like a tot awaiting a visit from Santa. I have been covering this festival as a NYFCO critic since it began and it has afforded me some of my greatest film experiences over the past decade.

As you might expect, the festival includes low culture as well as high. To be more exact, the low culture martial arts/gangster movies that Hong Kong pioneered incorporate many high culture aspects, incorporating innovative film techniques and penetrating looks at an Asian society where cops and gangsters often play interchangeable roles.  For those who want a Marxist analysis of this genre, I strongly recommend “City on Fire”, a Verso book written by my friends Michael Hoover and Lisa Stokes which can be read online here.

Additionally, the festival screens movies that represent serious efforts to examine the human condition and that are clearly influenced by classic traditions in film going back to Satyajit Ray and Akira Kurosawa, not to speak of great American and European film.

Last night I attended a pre-festival screening for “High Noon”, a movie made in Hong Kong last year by a 24-year-old director named Mak Hei-yan who spoke during a q&a session. Mak’s movie utilized a screenplay about teenage angst and rebellion written by Tom Lin that also figured in companion movies made in Taiwan and Mainland China.  Each director took liberties with the script to capture the local conditions where the movie was made. Mak’s movie captures the febrile energy of Hong Kong where at least some young people from the lower classes apparently remain immune to its dubious charms. If her title “High Noon” evokes the 1952 western classic about a sheriff discovering himself under the crucible of an outlaw threat, then the plot and style of “Rebel Without a Cause”, the 1955 movie about teenage angst.

Whether or not Ms. Mak has seen the James Dean vehicle, she has as acted as a medium for its message. Like the U.S. in the 1950s, today’s Hong Kong seems to have lost its moorings despite material abundance.

During the q&a, in response to my question about what social or economic conditions could be driving its youth to self-destructive behavior, Mak stated that they still have hope that friendship and love are possible despite all odds. For someone like me who was about the age of the characters in “High Noon” when “Rebel Without a Cause” was popular, I felt that this dialog between James Dean and his love interest would have fit in with her film:

Judy: I love somebody. All the time I’ve been… I’ve been looking for someone to love me. And now I love somebody. And it’s so easy. Why is it easy now?

Jim Stark: I don’t know; it is for me, too.

Judy: I love you, Jim. I really mean it.

Jim Stark: Well, I’m glad.

The travails of Mak’s characters are not that different from those that afflict characters in American flicks, including drug abuse, teen pregnancy, and mindless gang violence. But it is what she does with these problems that set her apart from her peers in the West, including the feckless producers of “Juno”, a movie about teen pregnancy that treats it like a lark. Additionally, a key plot element involves one of her male protagonists uploading a video showing him having sex with his girlfriend that eventually becomes viral—to shattering consequences. All of these problems are treated without kid gloves and to greater dramatic impact than what we have become accustomed to from Hollywood.

Beyond her ability to treat the inner lives of her characters with a depth and maturity that belies her own youth, Mak has a flair for the dramatic visual statement that is the mark of a real genius with a camera. In one scene, one of her seven male students and a ketamine addict (a drug originally used by veterinarians but has emerged as a drug of choice at raves) tries to shut himself inside his mother’s vinyl suitcase, a gesture evoking a desire to go back into the womb in some ways. When he proves too large, he begins jumping up and down on it instead. This mad behavior serves to describe his psyche much more dramatically than the words of a social worker or priest, the customary Greek chorus in Hollywood teen angst movies.

“High Noon” will be shown again at the film festival. I can only urge New Yorkers to bend every effort to see as many of these movies as they can since they are unique opportunities to get a bird’s eye view of Asian society as well as superb entertainment. Scheduling information is here.

High Noon trailer

Interview with the director

1 Comment »

  1. […] Festival 2009 Filed under: Asia, Film — louisproyect @ 5:31 pm This is a follow-up to my initial post on the New York Asian Film Festival, which included a review of a pre-festival screening of […]

    Pingback by 7 movies from the NY Asian Film Festival 2009 « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — June 21, 2009 @ 10:11 pm

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