Found in Translation

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The New York Asian Film Festival is arguably most famous for its horror films. As The New Yorker recently documented, a critic staggered out of one of the more gruesome screenings several years ago, emitted a gurgle, and then dropped in a dead faint in the lobby.

This year provided no exception to the high scary quotient. Along with art-house dramas, broad comedies, and martial arts- and Japanese comic-derived movies, the festival featured the likes of Juon: The Grudge, soon to be remade into a Sarah Michelle Gellar vehicle; Doppelganger, about an innocuous engineer whose evil double is taking over his life; and Marronnier, which features a mad genius who turns women into satanic killer dolls.

The rising popularity of "J-Horror" in Hollywood would seem to necessitate a viewing of these movies – but for a few things. First of all, the film-festival program billed Juon thusly: "If you thought The Ring was scary," – and I did, terribly so – "please don't see this movie – we can't afford to cart you out of the theater after you die of fright." And second, my usual viewing partner was not available to be clawed at and climbed like a tree during the course of shriekfest screenings.

Yes, it's true: Your reviewer chickened out completely.

I am happy, however, to report that this failing led to opportunity, and I was thus able to see a number of remarkable films, ones that break away from the usual fare that trickles in to U.S. audiences. There is something to be said for the Asian standards – the sleek gorgeousness of films by Zhang Yimou and Wong Kar-Wai, the kinetic delights of martial-arts movies, the freakishly frightening horror flicks.

But must films from abroad that center on recognizable human emotion, ideas, and characters be lost in translation, barred from our cinemas? These films will be on festival circuits for the rest of the year; I can only hope American distributors pick them up. What a pleasure it is to watch characters in these Asian films eat, brood, weep desperate tears, laugh like real people! They tell us something harrowing or comic or true about everyday love and suffering, without the sensational, marketable trappings of extreme visual ecstasy or horror.

Three of the movies I viewed seemed to take a special joy in slamming different genres together, exploiting slapstick and Buddhist doctrine to talk about morality, and human interaction and engagement. Drive is a delirious Japanese trifle that takes off with a bang when three screaming bank robbers carjack a migraine-prone salaryman. Little do they know that they have picked the absolute worst getaway driver – a compulsive who cannot go a hair above the speed limit. More shrieking, supernatural encounters, and the requisite bonding ensue, with each of the quartet confronting karma and crash-diving his way toward fulfillment over the course of one fateful night. Drive stubbornly refuses to fit into any one filmic convention, and it gives its characters a happiness that is saved from sentimentality by the movie's quirkiness. What could be better for an obsessive-compulsive than riding off into the sunset, right on time, with a lemon drop bulging in your cheek?

Running on Karma, a Hong Kong smash hit, takes a darker tone in its exploration of causality and fate. Former monk turned stripper Big (Andy Lau in a hilarious rubber muscle suit) can see karma. When he meets an earnest cop, he decides to help her work off her bad karma accumulated from a past life. The film is a freaky, genre-bending pop-noir with plenty of good-natured stripper gyrations and Buddhist ruminations from its star. It shouldn't work: It plunges into melodrama, gives its audience gore and a little chopsocky and then wants to have its beefcake and it eat, too, by preaching about nonviolence. But through the sheer joy and madness of its concept, somehow Running on Karma does just that.

The Thai film Baytong also explores the Buddhist concepts of nonattachment and suffering, but this time through the story of Tum, a Buddhist monk who moves down to the Muslim south after his sister is killed in a terrorist attack. The film is an unusually timely poem to compassion and religious tolerance. (Thailand's southern provinces have erupted this year in a wave of religious strife, and nearly 200 have died in Islamic uprisings that were put down by brutal police force.) Tum (Poowarit Poompuang, in a beautifully expressive performance) struggles to live amid people he holds responsible for his sister's murder. He also puzzles over the temptations of sensual pleasure, plus emotional attachment to new friends and his beautiful little niece. The movie opens with a quote from the Buddha, a rough paraphrase of which is, "One must be willing to surrender all that remains in the world." While there may be a few too many monk-out-of-the-monastery scenarios, Baytong is blessed with a gentle humor that lightens its examination of the inexorable gravity of that world on religious ideals.

Two other films go elbow-deep into human suffering, without even the calm detachment of Buddhist doctrine to provide ballast. The Japanese film Antenna depicts the nearly complete disintegration of a family after the disappearance of an 8-year-old daughter: Mom joins a cult, younger brother thinks he is channeling his missing sister, uncle commits suicide, and oldest brother engages in harrowing sex-therapy sessions with a tender dominatrix. The film has a strange, loopy rhythm – slow in between fits of frenetic terror and guilt – but is shocking in its intensity, in its cool refusal to look away from unthinkable pain.

Vibrator, the masterpiece of the festival, shares a similarly intuitive frequency with Antenna. Rei Hayakawa (the extraordinary Shinobu Terashima), a deeply lonely, bulimic freelance writer with a drinking problem, wanders through a convenience store. She's swaddled in her coat and scarf, her thoughts – of alienation, of hunger, of the need for gin and white wine – drifting in via voice-over. Occasionally her deepest emotions flash onscreen in intertitles, like the ones used in silent movies. A bleached-blond trucker (Nao Omori as Takatoshi Okabe, in an equally nuanced performance) walks in, deliberately grazes her behind with his hand, and Rei's cell phone, set on vibrate, goes off over her heart.

Rei gets into Okabe's truck with him – and stays. The film is based on the simplest of plots: girl meets boy, road trip, emotional revelations. But the film is a magnificent chamber piece. Cast like a two-person play, Vibrator explores the duality between the intimacy of the truck cab and each character's yearning for the independence and freedom of the open road, between being haunted by one's history and the fear of forging a new one. "I want to touch you," Rei murmurs to Okabe, and then sits paralyzed, like a woman terrified into stone.

Based on the novel of the same name by award-winning author Mari Akasaka, Vibrator gives Rei a vibrant complexity. She constantly hears voices – her own dark thoughts, schoolyard taunts, her mother's cruelty – but also has a deep capacity for joy, a warm curiosity. As for Okabe, there's a puzzling sweetness under his braggadocio. "I wonder why this man understands me," Rei thinks, and we realize that we know him far less than we think we do.

The couple grapple together, fighting, probing, speaking little but saying volumes, droning on, and sleeping together in scenes that are astonishing in their emotional impact. By the end, they've staggered into an exhausted grace; stripped of artifice, they're too naked to do anything but cling to each other. " If you don't eat," says Okabe to Rei, "there's nothing to puke up." A clearer declaration of bittersweet love was never heard.

The film is unflinchingly, almost mercilessly, clear-eyed in its assessment of emotional transformation. But it also holds out redemption – in the impossible golden light of an early morning, in halting words over noodles, and in the warm hum of a truck cab looking out over the wide open road. The film has none of the thrills and screams of an Asian horror film, no flashy wirework, no period-piece gorgeousness. But it's one of the finest movies I've seen this year, and certainly the most moving, this devastatingly simple story of two people fumbling at each other's clothes, each other's hearts. Vibrator sends its aftershocks right through you.

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