For eight years now, the New York Asian Film Festival has earned “Wow”s and “Huh?”s from Manhattan audiences with its savory mix of action and art-house works from the continent that produces more movies than any other. In its scope and vigor, this is the New York film festival, and it’s run not by a heavily subsidized arts institution but by a few knowledgeable guys from Brooklyn who want to share their enthusiasms with the fanboys of the tristate area. The playlist has grown from 11 features in 2002 to more than 50 this time, and includes movies not just from Japan and China but also Korea, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Tamil state of India. Few of these titles are likely to get a U.S. release, which is a shame, but there’s always the Internet. Be a cinema sleuth and track down some of these titles; you’ll say Wow, too.
20th Century Boys and 20th Century Boys: The Last Hope
This, not Transformers 2, is the action movie series about giant robots that tens of millions of people should have been paying to see this summer. The NYAFF showed the first two parts in a trilogy; the final installment opens in Japan next month. Taking its title from a T. Rex song and based on a manga by Naoki Urasawa that has sold some 20 million copies, this fantasy of an alternative Japanese history imagines that the lines and pictures scrawled by a club of kids in the ’70s has become the Book of Prophesies by a cult whose leader, known only as Friend, takes power many years later. The special effects are rudimentary, but the churning of plot, and the richness of character and detail, keep you glued. One prophesy that “The satanic salesmen will destroy the world” might have referred to the Wall Street sharpies who crippled the world economy last fall, after the first two movies were made.
K-20: Legend of the Mask
Another vision of an alternate Japan, based on a manga , this movie proposes that the country’s rulers averted a multicontinental World War II by forging a truce with the U.S. the day after Pearl Harbor as we say, it’s a fantasy thus allowing the nobility to stay in power amid widespread poverty. Enter K-20, the Fiend with 20 Faces, who can assume almost any identity, and who steals from the rich but also oppresses the poor. Only one man can stop K-20 if he can just figure out what evil genius is behind that ever-changing mask. A buoyant pace, meticulous design and a robust parkour fight on a skyscraper roof mark this superior effort from Sato, one of Japan’s rare female directors of big-budget action films.
Ever since Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon broke records for a foreign-language film at the Stateside box office, Asian directors have plundered Chinese history for tales of airborne warriors and another chance at the U.S. market. Chan, better known for romantic dramas like the superb Comrades: Almost a Love Story, could have a shot with this remake of Chang Cheh’s 1973 kung-fu bromance Blood Brothers. He’s certainly got star quality: Jet Li, Kaneshiro and Hong Kong superstar Andy Lau . It’s a little long and a lot of fun, even if it doesn’t quite live up to the NYAFF blurb: “As big, meaty and satisfying as a flame-roasted leg of wild boar, Warlords is the kind of movie you tear into with relish, wiping its bloody juices off your chin with the back of your hand as you sit on a throne made of the bones of your enemies.”
While North Korea celebrated our July 4th by firing short-range missiles into the Sea of Japan, South Korea made balky protests and stood on edgy alert. Yet to judge from some of the movies in this now world-class national cinema, you’d think the South’s biggest political problem was the repression of its own postwar decades. In the 1970s its film industry produced a number of anti-Communist films; Dachimawa Lee is a parody of these gung-ho, better-dead-than-Red melodramas. That might register only as more grousing from the artistic Left, if the movie weren’t so wildly and encyclopedically entertaining a sendup and evocation of spy movies, with some great martial-arts moves. Start to finish, it packs plenty more punch than one of Kim Jong-il’s sputtering Scuds.
Read TIME’s Chandni Chowk to China Review: Bollywood Goes East
See TIME’s complete coverage: The 2009 Cannes Film Festival