Running through this year's Asian offerings is a compelling thematic thread: responses to alienation that make one almost want to look away. It's not necessarily some new trend in Asian cinema, but this selection violates taboos and demands unflinching gazes in ways I haven't seen in some time.
Alienation, whether congenital, self-imposed, or forced, is the lot of most of the characters in these new films. The examples from Hong Kong are too often the most superficial treatments of this condition. In the inexplicably admired Hong Kong policier Infernal Affairs, alienation means being a mole in the opposite camp. Whether one is a cop working undercover in the gang world for 10 years or a gangster posing as an impeccable police officer, as the two protagonists played by heartthrobs Tony Leung Chu-Wai and Andy Lau are (respectively), these long-term conditions are likened, in an epigram in the movie, to the Buddhist “Continuous Hell” of suffering. The stripped-down look of this picture is refreshing, but searching for slips in facial expressions and stated motives becomes a monotonous exercise among such stoic fraternities. Way more fun is this film's sororal counterpart, So Close, in which three women combat their respective alienation by kicking it on its ass.
Failing to be a useful member of society is alienation Japan-style. The first half of Last Scene is a droll satire of modern Japanese filmmaking, in which an elderly actor returns to the studio that rejected him as a younger man; unfortunately, the film loses its edge and goes maudlin. In the misty, beautifully shot Woman of Water, a young woman who may have caused the deaths of her father and fiance through her rainmaking powers takes refuge in her inherited bathhouse with a young man who can't stop playing with fire. In the surprisingly affecting Aiki, a boxer suddenly deprived of the use of his lower body lashes out at a wheelchair-hating culture, until he discovers the empowering secrets of aiki-jujutsu, a martial art that uses the strength of an attacker against himself.
One of guest programmer Michel Ciment's choices is Fear and Trembling, about a young Belgian woman hired by a Japanese company as an interpreter. Trying too hard to fit into the corporate culture, she's punished by being forced to do meaningless, irrelevant tasks that nevertheless help her attain a level of serenity. By the end of Doing Time, a similar serenity seems to be enveloping a man played by Yamazaki Tsutomu (Tampopo), who finds himself in a Japanese prison. Both characters achieve fulfillment in the ritual and routine of tightly organized institutions — a glad surrender of the responsibilities of selfhood.
Two Korean films may be the most unflinching. Too Young to Die is a semidocumentary look at the private life of two horny seventysomethings who screw like teenagers. Oasis is a powerful story of a pair of misfits, one a mildly retarded, De Niro-esque ex-con and the other a young woman with cerebral palsy, whose romance everybody wants to squelch. But you just can't look away.
Infernal Affairs: Friday, April 18, 9:45 p.m., Pacific Film Archive; Monday, April 21, 3 p.m., Castro; Friday, April 25, 7 p.m., AMC Kabuki
So Close: Friday, April 18, midnight, AMC Kabuki; Monday, April 21, 4:15 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Sunday, April 27, 9 p.m., CinéArts
Last Scene: Saturday, April 19, 9:30 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Wednesday, April 23, 9:45 p.m., AMC Kabuki
Woman of Water: Sunday, April 20, 9:30 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Friday, April 25, 4 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Sunday, April 27, 3:15 p.m., Pacific Film Archive
Aiki: Tuesday, April 22, 9:45 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Thursday, April 24, 6:30 p.m., AMC Kabuki
Fear and Trembling: Saturday, April 19, 9:15 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Monday, April 21, 4 p.m., AMC Kabuki
Doing Time: Friday, April 18, 4:30 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Monday, April 21, 6:30 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Thursday, April 24, 7 p.m., Pacific Film Archive
Too Young to Die: Friday, April 18, 7 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Sunday, April 20, 9:15 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Wednesday, April 23, 7 p.m., Pacific Film Archive
Oasis: Wednesday, April 23, 6 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Monday, April 28, 6:30 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Wednesday, April 30, 4 p.m., AMC Kabuki