Saturday, June 30, 2012

NYAFF ’12: 10+10

Taiwan is a country with a tragic history and rich legacy of pop music.  Both factor prominently when ten established Taiwanese filmmakers and ten emerging new talents were commissioned by the Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival to create a five minute films expressing the country’s unique character.  The resulting anthology 10+10 screens this coming Thursday as an official selection of the 2012 New York Asian Film Festival.

Viewers going into 10+10 should not get hung up on consistency.  These twenty filmmakers will cover a lot of emotional and thematic ground.  The tension between tradition and modernization will be a recurring motif, beginning with Wang Toon’s opener, in which a bickering pair of cousins treks up to a remote shrine.  They intent to curry favor with the spirits by showing them the 3-D DVD of Avatar.  It is a quiet but clever piece.

Nostalgia is also on tap in Wu Nien-jen’s A Grocery Called Forever.  Depicting a spirited elderly woman who insists on keeping her family’s corner store open, it is a pleasant slice of life.  Taiwan’s aging population play central roles in several constituent films, perhaps most touchingly in Cheng Wen-tang’s Old Man and Me.  Told from the persona of a now deceased man suffering from Alzheimer’s, it serves as his thank-you to the townspeople who searched the countryside for him when he wandering off to his demise.

Given the approximate five minute durations, many of the installments are rather sketch-like.  Indeed, entries like Wang Shaudi’s Destined Eruption and Yang Ya-che’s The Singing Boy seem to end just as they are getting started.  However, several pack quite a bit of narrative into their limited running times.  Somehow, Chang Tso-Chi’s Sparkles shoehorns the entire 1949 Battle of Kinmen Island into less than ten minutes.  A powerful war film, it follows an innocent girl being escorted to the island’s doctor by the Nationalists, as they desperately try to hold off the invading Communists.

Featuring plenty of explosions, Sparkles is probably one of the most NYAFF-esque films in 10+10.  The other would be Chung Mong-hong’s satisfyingly dark Reverberation.  What starts as a teenaged bullying drama takes a dramatic u-turn into gangster territory.  Karma will be a hard thing.

Easily the strongest shorts are those directly inspired by music.  Chen Kuo-fu’s The Debut is a lovely ghost story, portraying the spectral encouragement offered to a discouraged pop ingénue by one of the great torch singers from yesteryear.  Likewise, Rendy Hou Chi-jan pays tribute to the sentimental ballads of the 1960’s, depicting one song’s power to transcend time.  Ranking just a notch below the lyrical pair, Cheng Yu-chieh’s Unwritten delivers some ironic laughs satirizing the concessions made by the Taiwanese film industry to the mainland market.  Frankly, it is increasingly relevant to Hollywood as well.

Not every film works particularly well.  Wei Te-sheng’s Debut ought to be a DVD extra for his aboriginal war drama Seediq Bale, essentially following his first-time actor Lin Ching-tai as they take the epic to the Venice Film Festival.  Arguably, the low point comes with Kevin Chu Yen-ping’s uncomfortably manipulative and awkwardly didactic The Orphans.

Surprisingly, there is a fair amount of star power in 10+10, including Shu Qi looking typically radiant in marquis contributor Hou Hsiao-hsien’s slight but nonetheless engaging closer La Belle Epoque.  Kwai Lun Mei also graces Leon Dai’s oomph-lacking Key.  Despite attempts to glam her down, she remains a vivid screen presence.

By their nature, anthology films are inherently uneven.  Yet, there are enough good things going on in 10+10 to satisfy connoisseurs of either short films or Asian cinema.  On balance, it is an effective sampling of Taiwanese cinema, well worth a look when it screens this coming Thursday (7/5) at the Walter Reade Theater, as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.