Korean American Film Festival New York 2012 Preview

Featured Critic; New York City, New York
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Korean American Film Festival New York 2012 Preview
The 6th Annual Korean American Film Festival (KAFFNY) screens June 5-10 at Anthology Film Archives. This year's edition is probably the festival's most eclectic one yet, encompassing many modes and styles of filmmaking, film production, and even exhibition, ranging from documentaries (on the 1992 L.A. riots, pro-wrestling evangelism, and street artists), multi-national fiction features that cross borders of geography and language, and music and social-activist films. Below are reviews of some of this year's selections.

Should've Kissed (Jinoh Park)

Park's debut feature, the first half of KAFFNY's opening night double feature, is a brooding, wintry portrait of two lonely souls in New York City and their (perhaps) failed attempt to make a connection. Park himself essays the main role, as Jun, a struggling actor who also works part time at a bar belting out Sinatra songs to nearly empty rooms. After suffering the major disappointment of a director backing out of offering him a role he had been previously promised, and after screaming his frustration to no one in particular, he wanders the streets aimlessly. This depressive, peripatetic action seems to be in homage to another New York wanderer, Travis Bickle, the protagonist of Scorsese's Taxi Driver, featured in a poster that Jun regularly talks to in his apartment. Meanwhile, aspiring actress Summer (Marina Michelson), torpedoes an audition that initially seems to be going well by suddenly refusing to do what she is being asked. After spotting Summer on the street having a screaming match with her audition partner, refusing to go back inside, Jun approaches her. And thereafter begins a fateful day and night spent in each other's company; not a whole lot of dialog is exchanged between them, but there is much time spent sitting in silence and gloomy shadows. Seemingly apropos of nothing, Summer at one point acts out a scene of a lover's spat with a non-reacting Jun; at another, she recites Lorraine Bracco's voiceover from Scorsese's GoodFellas; at still another, she sings the blues song "A Good Man is Hard to Find." Jun remains silent through each episode.

There's certainly much potential here for a resonant depiction of an almost-romance and the difficulty of finding love in the big city, and Should've Kissed tries mightily hard to create a wistful, lovelorn mood, starting with the very title of the piece. Unfortunately, the result leaves one just as cold as the film's winter setting. Being in the company of these atomized, displaced individuals, who are often drenched in thick shadows, proves to be not a very engaging one; we watch them interact, but their romance (or lack thereof) remains something theoretical rather than something that draws us in on any real emotional level. We simply observe these characters and their situations as if they are behind impenetrable glass, keeping us at a far distance. There's also no flow to the film's structure; it's essentially a series of loosely connected scenes, narrative dead ends and ideas that don't really lead anywhere. The imaginary Travis Bickle conversations, Summer's family photos, Jun's lounge singing, Summer's self-defeating career tactics: these are all character traits and elements that teasingly hint at something more, but in the end fail to cohere in any meaningful way.

Should've Kissed screens June 5, 7pm and June 9, 9:30pm at Anthology Film Archives. Director Jinoh Park and actress Marina Michelson will be present for a Q&A following the June 5 screening.

Magic and Loss (Lim Kah Wai)

The far more artistically successful second half of KAFFNY's opening-night double feature is Malaysian director Lim Kah Wai's multinational, polyglot production Magic and Loss. Lim's film also contains characters that are mysterious and well-nigh impenetrable; however, unlike Should've Kissed, the effect of this is not to push us away, but to seduce us with its alluring lead characters, and its eerily atmospheric and exotic island setting. Magic and Loss is saturated with a free-floating eroticism that encompasses many moods: melancholic romance, comedy, thriller and mystery elements, and a subtle but unmistakable creepiness that approaches horror. Even though there are threads of many film genres embedded in its cinematic DNA, this is ultimately an unclassifiable, often confounding, but nevertheless compelling work. Multiple viewings paradoxically deepen the mystery and reveal as many narrative forking paths and possible interpretations as a Jorge Luis Borges story.

The basic premise of Magic and Loss is a deceptively simple one: Kiki (Kiki Sugino), a Japanese woman, and Kkobbi (Kim Kkobbi), a Korean woman, find themselves at a hotel in Mui Wo, a resort town on Hong Kong's Lantau Island. They apparently won a stay at this resort in a cosmetics company promotional contest, and are seemingly the hotel's only guests. The only other significant character besides these two women is a garrulous bellhop (Yang Ik-june), who of course tries to get closer to these two beautiful women.

So far, so straightforward, right? Wrong. The film's very first images shatter that notion immediately, as the two women share a drink with seductive smiles that hint at the sensual and psychological journey that both will embark on during their vacation. We backtrack after that to how they first met, staying in separate rooms, Kiki curiously wandering the island, and Kkobbi writing and drawing pictures in her diary. They eventually meet, getting to know each other and communicating in awkward English, and playing volleyball. They leave the hotel after their stay is up, but almost immediately return, requesting to stay in the same room, where they have to share a bed. Thereafter begins a journey of both physical and psychic space, where identities (national, linguistic, psychological), transfer and merge, and end up in a place that is as deeply unsettling as it is entrancing and erotically charged. Magic and Loss doesn't really even come to a conclusion; stay beyond the end credits, and you will find a strong hint that this story is a never-ending loop.

Magic and Loss is for all intents and purposes an experimental film, in both the cinematic avant-garde and the (metaphorically) scientific sense; it freely experiments with shifting styles, performance and dialog (entirely improvised by the actors), and much like a scientist in the lab, transforms its elements into a new creation that functions very differently from the components that comprises it. This is a very roundabout way of saying that Magic and Loss is that very rare thing: something you've never quite seen the likes of before, a truly original work.

Magic and Loss screens June 5, 9pm and June 9, 3pm at Anthology Film Archives. Jo Keita, the film's sound designer (who happens to be Kiki Sugino's younger brother), whose work contributes greatly to the sensuous atmospherics of the piece, will introduce the June 5 screening.

Ultimate Christian Wrestling (Jae-Ho Chang and Tara Autovino)

KAFFNY's centerpiece film is a documentary following three practitioners of a bizarre mash-up of knock-down, drag-out pro wrestling and barn-burning evangelism that toured different venues in rural Georgia. Like other great documentaries, this one features very memorable real-life characters - in this case, literally so, as they put on personas in the ring, just like their secular counterparts. There is Rob Adonis ("The Modern Day Warrior"), the founder of Ultimate Christian Wrestling, who meticulously grooms his body with metrosexual precision, and struggles to convince other skeptical church people of the efficacy of his unique form of ministry. Billy Jack ("God's Property") hangs on to his devotion to UCW for dear life while he struggles mightily with multiple divorces, child-custody fights, and dwindling finances. Finally, Justin Dirt ("The Custodial Crippler"), who lodges with Rob Adonis and his wife, works menial, low-paying jobs, searching for stability in his life, which he thinks he will find by enlisting in the armed forces. It's extremely easy for us in the coastal states, who think of ourselves as intellectually and culturally sophisticated, to mock these sorts of people, or at the very least look at them askance. However, Chang and Autovino admirably refuse to go this route, treating them with humanistic respect and sympathy, making the viewer feel invested in their fates. As a result, we are left with valuable insights into the workings of religious faith and what this means to so many people, how it sustains and comforts them, and gives their lives meaning.

Ultimate Christian Wrestling screens June 8, 7pm and June 10, 6pm at Anthology Film Archives. Co-directors Jae-Ho Chang and Tara Autovino will be present for Q&A's at both screenings.

Girl Walk // All Day (Jacob Krupnick)

A welcome antidote to the self-consciously artistic, yet monotonous and shallow gloominess of Should've Kissed is another New York film, the exuberant, celebratory, infectiously fun dance-music city symphony of Girl Walk // All Day. This is a 71-minute, feature length music video set to mash-up master DJ Greg Gillis aka Girl Talk's latest sampling opus, All Day. The thin sliver of a narrative concerns "The Girl" (Anne Marsen), who escapes her stuffy ballet class and takes to the streets, dancing her way across New York City. Along the way, she encounters two other dancers: "The Gentleman" (Daisuke Omiya), a suave and stylish terpsichorean practitioner, and "The Creep" (John Doyle), a two-tone haired dancer who wears a black outfit with a skeleton drawn on it. The two men seem to be rivals for The Girl's affection, but this thread isn't pursued too strongly. The real point is the beautiful interplay of body movement and urban spaces, set to a pulsating soundtrack that takes wildly disparate sonic elements and forcibly smashes them together (Ludacris and Black Sabbath, Radiohead and Ol' Dirty Bastard). This of course mirrors the city itself, where people from all walks of life find themselves in close proximity to one another, a diversity that gives New York its unique flavor and which Girl Walk // All Day proudly celebrates.  The dancer's interactions with the public are the source of some of the best moments. The Girl dances with a troupe of teenage break-dancers at one point, and at another leads a group of women plucked from the street in a rendition of Beyonce's "Single Ladies" dance. The dancers weave through a group of tai chi practitioners in Chinatown and pass through Occupy Wall Street. This all culminates in a mass dance in Central Park, a climactic moment in which the dancers' joyful movement has spread to the entire body politic.

All public screenings of Girl Walk // All Day have been conceived by the filmmakers as interactive experiences, and its KAFFNY iteration will be no exception. The film will be accompanied by a dance party at White Box gallery at 329 Broome Street on June 6, at 8pm.

For more information on these and other films in the festival, and for information on purchasing tickets, visit KAFFNY's website.

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