Now in its 11th year, the New York Asian Film Festival faces a film culture where Asian genre films rarely make it outside the subtitled ghetto. This year, Sony Pictures Classics ventured an 800-screen release for the Indonesian action film THE RAID: REDEMPTION. Their efforts were rewarded with a gross just under four million dollars - stellar for an arthouse release, but given the cost of advertising a mainstream release, probably much less than the distributor hoped for. This year’s NYAFF lineup pays tribute to Korean actor Choi Min-sik, one of many guests to be honored, and offers a lineup of more than 50 features. I wasn’t able to preview more than a small percentage of that roster, so I’ll refrain from making any snap judgments on this year’s quality. However, it does suggest that Korean cinema remains one of the region’s - and the world’s - most vital.

Korean director Yeun Sang-Ho’s animated film THE KING OF PIGS demonstrates some differences between the West and Asia. No one in the U.S. - and few filmmakers in Europe - would make an animated film about bullying. If they did dare to do so, it would undoubtedly be an uplifting story about underdogs triumphing over adversity. THE KING OF PIGS is not such a film. Even given the subject matter, it’s remarkably grim. The framing story concerns two middle-aged adult men, one of whom has just killed his wife,  who meet and discuss their school days, where their memories hinge upon a classmate who fought back against their omnipresent bullies. The use of animation works as a distancing device, but just barely. A scene in which a cat is slaughtered would probably be unwatchable in live action, even if simulated. THE KING OF PIGS presents a dystopian view of South Korea, in which the scars of adolescence linger long into adulthood. Despite being fictional, it’s no less disturbing or urgent  than the documentary BULLY, which features real footage of children being tormented.  

Proving that Korean cinema spans a wide range of quality, Jeong Yong-ki’s COUPLES is far less impressive. Splicing together the rom-com with the “everyone is connected” tales of Paul Haggis and Alejandro Gonnzalez Iņarritu and throwing in elements of the film noir as well, it tries hard to offer something original. It tells the interlocking stories of several couples, who relate their experiences to the camera. This technique kills off suspense, as we know that everything will turn out OK for many of the characters and reduces the difficulties in their lives to cheap plot devices. COUPLES is steeped in American cinema, recalling everything from WHEN HARRY MET SALLY to PULP FICTION, and one wouldn’t be surprised if Katherine Heigl and Gerard Butler suddenly turned up. COUPLES is highly impressed with its own cleverness, but throwing different genres together doesn’t automatically lead to profundity. In this case, it seems like a 110-minute long gimmick.

Japanese director Hitoshi Matsumoto’s SCABBARD SAMURAI casts a dejected glance at the audience. Its protagonist, a disgraced samurai who wanders Japan without a sword, is forced to spend 30 days entertaining a depressed prince. If he can’t make the prince smile, he will have to commit ritual suicide. Weirdly, given the period setting, SCABBARD SAMURAI makes one think of reality TV and its focus on bizarre stunts. The samurai starts off with easy tricks and progresses to eating live octopi (perhaps a nod to the Korean film OLD BOY, revived by the NYAFF this year) and being fired out of a cannon. It all plays like a PG-13 version of JACKASS, except that the pain behind the laughter is pushed to the forefront. The problem is that the laughter never really comes and the film’s melancholy spirit is rather self-pitying. The lengthy scenes of the samurai’s stunts quickly grow tiresome. As sympathetic as SCABBARD SAMURAI is towards its protagonist, one starts to understand why the prince has such a hard time finding him amusing.  

In recent years, the NYAFF has revived a few classic Asian films. This year, it’s bringing back FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH and INFERNERAL AFFAIRS, which loosely inspired Martin Scorsese’s THE DEPARTED. Y.K. Kim and Park Woo-Sung’s MIAMI CONNECTION, made in 1987, fits awkwardly into this slot. For one thing, it was actually made in the U.S., albeit by two Koreans. This screening is a teaser for a full theatrical re-release by Drafthouse Films later this year. Drafthouse Films undoubtedly hope to turn it into a full-fledged cult film, and it would probably go down easier after a few beers. Seen sober, the faults of its stiff acting, clumsy direction and sub-Giorgio Moroder soundtrack are pretty glaring. Still, there’s a conceptual brilliance to the idea of a rock band learning Tae Kwon Do to fight cocaine-smuggling ninjas, and the film’s combination of MIAMI VICE aesthetics and martial arts sums up the ‘80s as well as a Nancy Reagan Just Say No lecture. MIAMI CONNECTION also incorporates a casual multiculturalism that undoubtedly stems from its dual Korean/American origins and seems appealing and prescient now. No lost masterpiece, it’s nevertheless pretty entertaining.