Exit the dragon

Nine years after the "Crouching Tiger" breakthrough, Asian cinema has virtually disappeared from American screens

Published June 25, 2009 10:25AM (EDT)

Courtesy New York Asian Film Festival

Image from "Dream."

Last weekend brought the opening of this year's New York Asian Film Festival, a wonderfully rich and strange event that's become a highlight of the Gotham summer for movie buffs. Although the NYAFF began in 2000 as a scruffy, fanboy-oriented celebration of old-school Hong Kong kung-fu flicks, it has evolved into the leading North American showcase for East Asian pop cinema. This year's festival kicked off with the world premiere of Hong Kong writer-director Wong Ka-fai's "Written By," a delirious supernatural melodrama with overtones of Charlie Kaufman-style meta-ness. It's precisely the kind of Asian film some Hollywood producer will try to remake (and undoubtedly will screw up): a grand, quasi-Buddhist meditation on life, death, love and the inescapable nature of suffering, awash with hilariously literal-minded special effects and frank sentimentality.

If "Written By" isn't your speed, the NYAFF has something for virtually every imaginable filmgoer's taste, especially if your taste runs to blithe disregard for Western-style movie conventions and constant back-and-forth violations of the Berlin Wall that separates art-house cinema from mass entertainment. There's a moody noir about a conspiracy by all women to kill all men ("Exodus," from Hong Kong), a low-budget Japanese blood-geyser in recklessly bad taste ("Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl"), a grimily realistic yarn about an aging bomb-disposal expert in a crumbling Chinese city ("Old Fish"),  a Tarkovskyan sci-fi allegory ("The Clone Returns Home," from Japan), a "Donnie Darko"-style fable about a forgotten Japanese punk-rock single that saves the world ("Fish Story") and a four-hour romantic epic about a sin-obsessed Japanese Catholic boy who becomes a ninja master of upskirt photography ("Love Exposure").

And hey, if you don't live near New York and can't make the festival, you needn't worry, right? Because "Written By" and most of the NYAFF's other movies will be reaching a theater near you, uh, well ... Hmm. I'm not exactly sure when, but here's a good guess: never.

In fact, precisely none of the four dozen or so features in this year's NYAFF have United States theatrical distribution lined up. Maybe that will change for a handful of them, but even then we're probably talking about token runs in New York and Los Angeles art houses, mainly to get review quotes that may boost DVD or online sales. That's precisely what happened with huge Asian genre hits like "Tokyo Gore Police" and "The Machine Girl," which got blink-and-you-miss-it releases from tiny distributors. Earlier this year, "Big Man Japan,"  a Japanese monster mockumentary that was one of last year's most acclaimed NYAFF films, was released by Magnet, a specialty division of Magnolia Pictures. It played a grand total of four U.S. theaters and earned less than $25,000.

Now let's jump into the way-back machine and return to the beginning of this decade, when Ang Lee's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" grossed $128 million and won four Oscars, blowing the old paradigm of possibility for foreign-language movies to smithereens. A new era of globalized East-West cinema seemed to be here. Just nine years later, "Asian movies are dead in America and no one cares," says Grady Hendrix, co-director of Subway Cinema, which runs the NYAFF. "We're right back where we started."

How and why did this happen? Those who follow the field say it's a classic story of boom-and-bust, a toxic business cycle that affected both supply and demand and created an artificial, unsustainable bubble. If that sounds like I'm talking about the price of houses in your neighborhood rather than the commercial fate of Japanese splatter films, welcome to capitalism. Both things are commodities, governed by the inexorable and mysterious laws of exchange-value.

After the unprecedented box-office success of "Crouching Tiger" and Zhang Yimou's Jet Li action vehicle "Hero" (which grossed $53 million in 2004), Asian movies were "suddenly solid gold," says Hendrix, who also wrote the now-defunct Kaiju Shakedown blog for Variety Asia Online. "We had to fight distributors to get movies for this festival. Every crummy Asian horror movie was suddenly hot and massive. Martial-arts extravaganzas couldn't get made fast enough. Walking around Hong Kong Filmart [the biggest Asian film marketplace] in 2004, all you saw were horror movies and 'Crouching Tiger' knockoffs."

Perhaps not surprisingly, this land rush resulted in an overload of Asian movies that -- to put it generously -- widely varied in quality, and which were dumped on an American audience whose initial curiosity was, it appeared, rapidly sated. Hollywood executives simply "overestimated the American appetite for imported films," says blogger Keith Allison of the cult-film site Teleport City. "The success of Jackie Chan movies and 'Crouching Tiger' had every studio buying up as much stuff from Asia as they could afford, often with little or no regard for the quality of the product" or its likely audience appeal.

Perhaps the central problem, says Hendrix, is that hardly anyone in the American movie business bothered to learn anything about the depth and breadth of Asian cinema, at least beyond action-oriented superstars like Chan, Li and Chow Yun-fat. His eight years of NYAFF programming offers vivid testimony of the trans-Asian explosion of filmmaking talent that transcends conceptual boundaries. But buyers have continued to shovel the same old formulaic action and horror vehicles onto American screens.

"You have acquisitions people picking up movies that aren't very good," he says, "and releasing them to an audience that doesn't know anything about them or have any context in which to enjoy them. They're being written about by a press that knows less and less about more and more Asian films and directors as magazines and newspapers downsize, fire their older writers and pay for shorter articles that are generally just about that week's new releases."

American distributors missed a huge opportunity, Hendrix thinks, to convert all those high-school and college-age anime and manga fans to the universe of live-action Asian films with a similar sensibility. Since they didn't understand that younger audience or know how to reach it, he says, "They strip-mined the action-horror audience until they'd thoroughly contaminated that ground and sown it with salt."

Meanwhile, Allison notes, the Japanese and Hong Kong film industries suffered a mid-decade collapse that was both economic and creative, and affected both quantity and quality. "After the coffers of existing movies were pretty well drained, there were no decent new movies waiting for distribution," he says. "Hong Kong fell apart completely and retreated largely into the world of romantic comedies. Japan retreated almost entirely to the realm of ultra-cheap, shoddily produced, direct-to-DVD fare." Much of that reflected a worldwide shift, at least for non-Hollywood product, away from movie theaters and toward digital media, already the delivery system for most films most of the time.

Contrary to widespread assumptions in the film industry, most observers insist that DVD and Internet piracy played no role in killing the Asian film market. Hendrix observes that "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" was the most widely pirated film in history, and still did $85 million its opening weekend. Blogger Todd Stadtman (of Teleport City and his own inimitable Die, Danger, Die, Die, Kill!) notes that Harvey Weinstein sat on Zhang's "Hero" for two years, "until everyone and their mama had seen it on cheap import DVDs" that could easily be found at Chinatown video stores. Many people were surprised that the picture was still a big hit when it was finally released.

If anything, there's a growing consensus that piracy may be a net plus for the film business, Asian or otherwise: It remains a small and economically marginal phenomenon, and spreads the kind of viral publicity that money can't buy. "The more people who see a movie, the better," says Hendrix. "The piracy argument is a straw man and one distributors bring up as an excuse to either bury a movie or to show that it's the fans that kept their movie from succeeding, not their mishandling of the movie or the fact that they bought a bad movie in the first place."

When the market for Asian imports started circling the drain in the mid-2000s, good movies as well as mediocrities were dragged down. Critics and hardcore fans liked Zhang's 2005 "House of Flying Daggers" almost as much as "Hero," but it arrived on American screens too soon after the earlier film and did less than one-fourth the business. Indie distributor Magnolia Pictures fared even worse with its investment in two Asian hits, the martial-arts spectacular "Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior" and "The Host," a whimsical Korean monster movie.

Despite major marketing campaigns and excellent reviews, those two movies failed to break out to large mainstream audiences -- "Ong-Bak" grossed $4.5 million in 2005, and "The Host" just $2.2 million in 2006 -- which provided others in the industry with a ready excuse for turning away from Asian cinema. Says Hendrix, "I think other distributors looked at 'The Host' and said to themselves, 'So that's the best we can do? Forget it.'"

Still, if those numbers represent the "new normal" for subtitled Asian films in American release, it's a pretty damn good normal. Only a handful of foreign-language releases every year earn more than $250,000 in the U.S., and almost any distributor of European films would be delighted with those returns. It's likely that Magnolia ultimately made its money back on DVD and television sales. Indeed, "Ong-Bak 2" is slated for release this fall from the Weinstein Co. (one of Magnolia's main rivals for the indie audience).

If the post-"Crouching Tiger" boom in Asian cinema was an irrational, Dutch-tulip-style bubble, then the virtual disappearance of Asian films from American screens is an equally irrational overcorrection. That said, Asian cinema in America is now first and foremost a DVD or online product. There are occasional exceptions: "Departures," the low-key Japanese drama that won this year's foreign-language Oscar, has performed decently in small-scale release. Korean auteur Park Chan-wook's vampire film "Thirst" will reach theaters in late summer, riding an insanely popular genre, worldwide publicity from its Cannes premiere and Park's global reputation as the director of the "Vengeance" trilogy.

Furthermore, it's not like every important Asian film can be found on DVD. Cult-films-in-waiting like "Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl" or "Love Exposure" will eventually work their way into dens and dorm rooms. But the situation for Asian art-house films without a built-in fan base is truly dire. Naomi Kawase's supremely lovely and profound "The Mourning Forest," which won the Grand Prix at Cannes in 2007, has not been released in North America in any form. The same is true, says Stadtman, of the tragicomic female odyssey "Memories of Matsuko," widely acclaimed as one of the decade's most important Japanese films. That's certainly just the tip of the iceberg.

Even if nobody in Hollywood ever gets around to distributing any of the films in this year's NYAFF, we can count on one thing: They'll watch a lot of them at private screenings, in their increasingly desperate search for potential high-concept star vehicles. "When it comes to Asian genre films, studios seem more inclined to invest their money in making remakes of them with white people than in distributing the originals," Stadtman drily remarks. "I mean, obviously a movie like 'The Host' is going to be much more relatable if it has people from 'Gossip Girl' in it."

Never fear, studio execs, I've done the heavy lifting for you! I haven't seen even half the films in the NYAFF, but here are a handful for Hollywood suits (and regular folks) to track down however you can, by fair means or foul:

"Written By" Surprisingly sad blend of supernatural and postmodern, from writer-director Wong Ka-fai, a frequent collaborator of Hong Kong legend Johnnie To. Discussed above.

"Love Exposure" At once juvenile, prurient and profound, this operatic four-hour romance from fast-rising Japanese director Sion Sono (who will next make the English-language "Lords of Chaos," about the Satanic metal underground in Scandinavia) follows an abused Japanese Catholic boy on his search for a personal Virgin Mary, with stops along the way in a Dickensian criminal underworld, the Zen-like discipline of upskirt photography and a pseudo-Shakespearean, gender-bending love affair. I really cannot explain to you how silly and great "Love Exposure" is; one of the year's biggest discoveries.

"Fish Story" A year before the Sex Pistols were founded, a pioneering Japanese punk band cut a mysterious single called "Fish Story" (based on a mistranslated American novel) , and more than 30 years later that maybe-haunted song saves the Earth from certain destruction. That's the basic premise of Yoshihiro Nakamura's dazzling fantasy-thriller, which skips back and forth from that 1975 recording session to the 2012 day of judgment, with stops at a fateful 1982 drinking party, a 1999 apocalyptic cult, a 2009 ferryboat hijacking and more. A terrifically generous and enjoyable movie.

"Dream" Prolific Korean director Kim Ki-duk defies all easy classification, and this combination of haunted, art-house love story with fatalistic, "Nightmare on Elm Street" high concept captures that perfectly. Some Hollywood producer's going to jump all over this remake: A man's dreams start being enacted by a woman he's never met, with terrible consequences. Both are wounded and attractive, yet try to resist the mysterious magnetism drawing them together. But an American remake could never capture the spirit of Kim's allusive, slow-moving drama, underpinned as it is by emotional violence and actual bloodshed.

"Exodus" If I tell you this is a Hong Kong movie about a secret plot by women to kill all men, it's going to sound like over-the-top exploitation. Instead, Pang Ho-cheung's film is a cool, modernist noir that depicts one of Asia's most crowded cities as an emotionally drained and empty landscape, straight out of Antonioni or George Lucas' "THX 1138." HK superstar Simon Yam plays a by-the-book cop who's never quite sure whether he's uncovered the darkest secret of the gender wars or is simply losing it.

"Breathless" A tour de force for co-director, writer and star Yang Ik-june, who plays a foulmouthed, brutal Korean thug who collects debts with his fists and is the supremely unlikely hero of this violent drama. Is "Breathless" a remake of the film that made Godard's reputation? Yes and no. It is about an improbable relationship between a criminal and an innocent-seeming schoolgirl (played by Kim Gol-bi), albeit one who can trash-talk right back at him. But Yang's "Breathless" is a searing indictment of the effects of family violence, which has scarred every character in the film, and it holds up the faintest possibility of escaping from it. Hard to sit through, this masterfully directed and marvelously acted picture is impossible to forget.

"Ip Man" As Grady Hendrix puts it, the period martial-arts drama, for many years the staple product of Asian film, is "as dead as disco" (at least for American audiences). But if you still harbor an affection for the genre, I heartily recommend Wilson Yip's action-packed biopic of Ip Man (played by the terrific Donnie Yen), a legendary kung-fu master who resisted Japanese occupation during World War II and later became Bruce Lee's teacher. I don't think it's literally true that Ip kicked the Imperial Japanese Army's entire ass single-handed, but what the hell. It makes for a well-paced and satisfying piece of Chinese-nationalist pulp. 

The New York Asian Film Festival continues through July 5 at the IFC Center and Japan Society in New York. The overlapping Japan Cuts: Festival of New Japanese Cinema (which co-presents some NYAFF programming) runs June 30-July 12 at Japan Society.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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