The New York Asian Film Festival
The New York Asian Film Festival (NYAFF), as noted, is very much a fan- driven festival and its organizers are proud of this label. In awarding the inaugural Daniel Craft Award in Excellence in Action Cinema in 2013, for example, Grady Hendrix, a co-founder, described his fellow founder Daniel Craft, who had passed away shortly before:
I am going to call Dan a bad name, Dan was a fan ...7 being enthusiastic isn’t cool anymore, everyone wants to be hip and removed and ironic and snarky, a fan is someone who is in love.8
Hendrix had recalled in 2009, when awarding the Rising Star Award, that the founders were “a bunch of white guys doing this festival.”9 Today, the NYAFF remains a pan-Asian festival run primarily by cinephiles who are enamored of popular Asian cinema, especially male-oriented action cinema, including kung fu, horror, sci-fi and thrillers.10 These “fans” are thus less likely to include art house films that travel on international film circuits, even though the festival occasionally does reach out to a wider female or family audience by including romances and comedies.
According to Grady Hendrix, the founders of Subway Cinema were actually lovers of Chinese films who used to frequent the Music Palace Cinema in Manhattan’s Chinatown. In 1999, the property went on sale. Hendrix, together with Paul Kazee and Goran Topalovic, tried to save the cinema, but it closed in 2000. These Hong Kong film fans wanted to find a way to keep seeing and showing popular Chinese cinema in New York. So, they decided to start a film festival, with five guys contributing US$1000 each.11 Hendrix, who blogs about Asian cinema as Variety’s Kaiju Shakedown, started Subway Cinema with Daniel Craft, Paul Kazee, Goran Topalovic and Marc Walkow,12 all Hong Kong film enthusiasts.
Therefore, from its very inception, the founders were interested in a Chinese film festival that showcased popular genre cinema. Years later, in 2011, Hendrix explained why the founders wanted to start the festival:
We realized that the Music Palace was doomed, and that meant the only movies people would be bringing to NYC from China and Hong Kong were going to be Zhang Yimou films and whatever the bloodless cultural gatekeepers deemed “suitable” for us masses. No one was going to be bringing the fun. No Wong Jing, no Johnnie To, no Tsui Hark.13
In another interview, Hendrix continued to ask,
Who would bring over the movies where dudes punch people so hard their heads explode, or where a superhero dressed as Garfield defeats evil with bad kung fu or where you get to see the deadly penis gun? No one else stepped up to fill the gap, so we felt like it was our duty.14
In many ways, the NYAFF is the New York version of London’s Terracotta Far East Film Festival, or the Udine Far East Film Festival, without the gravitas. More importantly, the founders have a certain idea about what Chinese or Hong Kong cinema should be. These films are foreign, and that foreignness provides a different sense of humor and action from Hollywood movies, elevating but also perpetuating the general stereotypes of the kung fu kicking Chinaman to cult status. Meanwhile, this Chineseness is perceived as part of some vague Asianness, further flattening diverse cultures into an easily identified whole.15
The NYAFF started in 2002. It was held in smaller venues, such as the Asia Society and Anthology Film Center. It has advanced its public profile since then, arriving at the Independent Film Channel (IFC) Center in 2008. Since 2010, it has held an annual, two-week event at the temple of New York high culture—the Lincoln Center. The festival is successful because of a well-developed fan base for popular Asian cinema, and more specifically, for Hong Kong action films, in the West since the 1970s.16 The audiences include fans like the founders, younger audiences who have inherited this fascination with Asian action cinema, and others in the Asian diaspora who want to have access to their home cinema on a big screen and in a film festival setting with its bells and whistles, as well as filmmakers and action choreographers.
The draw of a particular type of action cinema also helps explain the festival’s Othering phenomenon,17 which represents a Western-based fandom engaged in an exotic and Orientalist exchange. As Bill Nichols has shown in analyzing how film festivalgoers enter the realm of the unfamiliar in watching an Iranian film,18 organizers and audience of NYAFF share some of this act of translation. For example, when discussing the contribution of Lau Kar-Leung in the introduction to a tribute, Subway Cinema states,
A genius of mayhem, this action auteur is as philosophical as Kubrick and as kinetic as Chan, a Godzilla-sized talent who towers over the martial arts movie landscape... The first director to treat kung fu realistically, pitting style against style (Northern Fist vs. Southern Leg! Monkey Boxing vs. Drunken Boxing!), he made movies where martial arts were a philosophy, training elevated the soul, virtue was more important than survival, and invincible enemies were stabbed in the eardrums.19
The description mingles familiar Hollywood references (Kubrick) with Asian icons (Chan, Godzilla!) while also adducing a certain level of sophistication in distinguishing martial arts styles. This is also in your face, male cinema; Subway Cinema, at one point, had a table at New York Comic- Con.20 These associations suggest a specific culturally constructed idea about Asian mass media, a world of kung fu and comics.21 Indeed, the festival is built around a whole fascination with media products that have been slighted by high culture. The founders remain dedicated fans; most of them continued to finance the film festivals on credit cards as late as 2008 and have confessed their passion for these media products.22 Its ascendance to the Lincoln Center, however, speaks more to US elite cultural institutions’ struggle to survive. In an age where traditional high culture, like classical music or art cinema, fails to attract new audiences, the Lincoln Center needs to recruit a younger, hipper crowd. Yet, the NYAFF has scarcely shed its Orientalist tinge with “eyeball-exploding Asian films.”23
The many Asian cinemas converge with an eclectic range of Asian selections and experts, often qualified in terms that set the festival apart from the diction of other festivals:
Special Hong Kong guest director Tsui Hark will appear to speak about one of the festival’s areas of focus: on Wu Xia or martial arts film called Hong Kong’s Flying Swordsman. Korea’s film section will put more of a focus on intense action thrillers, which have ballooned in popularity in recent years, and include the sprawling Korean corruption epic, The Unjust. Japan’s shosection- wing [sic] includes the big budget adaptation of the popular Japanese television series, Karate-Robo Zaborgar, about a robot who turns into a motorcycle and performers [sic] karate in a kind of a Transformers meets kung fu marriage of genres! Filipino exploitation cinema will be showcased throughout the festival, and feature Mark Hartley’s documentary Machete Maidens Unleashed, as well as the classic 1980 Filipino exploitation film, Raw Force. Other spotlight films include Abraxas, which follows a band of punk-rock Buddhist Monks and Bangkok Knockout, an insane Thai action film.24
Even when the festival recognizes the different nationalities of the films, the descriptions definitely highlight their common thread—over-the-top exploitative fare. This, according to the festival, is Asian cinema. Kwai- Cheung Lo asserts,
The only historical reason that Asia has been and still is considered a unit is its intricate relations to the West. The notion of a single Asia is itself a fantasy of the West and reveals the Orientalist, imperialist, and colonial desires of the eighteenth century onward.25
Beyond a fan cult cinema festival and as it develops, NYAFF has become a wider and more crowd-pleasing Asian popular cinema festival with the elite culture stamp of the Lincoln Center.26 In 2002, for example, the festival at the Anthology Film Center showed horror and action films from Hong Kong, despite excessive gore.27 Meanwhile, in 2014, the NYAFF also included a comedy about North Korea’s Kim Jung Il (Aim High in Creation) and romances like Il Mare and Au Revoir L’Ete, amidst a panoply of gangster, horror and similar offerings.
To understand the NYAFF is to grapple with transnational fandom and the implication of a generalized exchange between fans in New York and East Asian cultural productions. The organizers of NYAFF are similar to fans of Japanese popular culture, where Koichi Iwabuchi sees “the transnational audience/fan alliance against the control of media cultures and activities” that demands an “Inter-nationalized understanding of crossborder flows and consumption of media cultures.”28 All these different articulations of the festival give the festival a veneer of rebelliousness, yet they are embedded within the global structure of defining asymmetrical differences between the East and the West.
While the films shown in NYAFF are mostly popular mainstream cinema in Asia, when these films are transplanted to New York and cloaked in the aura of an Asian film festival held at the Anthology Film Center, the IFC or the Lincoln Center, these films acquire new significance and status. At the same time, the audience may be reading films for cultural themes that take on different meanings in their cultures of production, where guns are more likely found on screen than they are at home. This is one way for the audience to define and tame Chinese and Asian cinema; a process of translation that fixes and flattens Asian Cinema as kung fu, violent, yet great fun to watch.
We need to further explore how the meanings of specific films or kinds of film change with the contexts they are shown in.29 This change can be understood as an inevitable consequence of cultural translation. The audiences abroad are inevitably different; they come from different countries, cultures and often classes. As much as most film festivals continue to talk about their communities, people who frequent film festivals are mostly more educated than people who go to local mainstream commercial cinema. All the literatures on active audience affirm that different audiences form different interpretive communities.30 As I have noted earlier, this can also apply to less apparently central themes like gender and masculinity.31 Hence, the Swordsman series, which featured early on in NYAFF programming (including a 2001 retrospective on Tsui Hark) has also been picked up by LGBTQ festivals because of Brigitte Lin’s gender-bending role. In 2014, however, an appearance by Tsui at the NYAFF sidestepped these questions to emphasize more mainstream adventure and “popular” themes: “Wu xia films are visual marvels, teeming with flying swordsmen, magical blades and glowering female steel-slingers. The line-up will include Tsui Hark’s mega-hit, Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (an Indomina release), and several retrospective titles like Tsui’s astonishing, feral masterpiece, The Blade.”32
Audiences abroad are agents belonging to different interpretive communities. The context in which these films are shown and promoted are drastically different from their “original” contexts. While many in Hong Kong would walk into a neighborhood theater to see a Tsui Hark film that had been advertised across local media, the New York audience, be they of Asian descent or not, have to make an effort to see these films that are not shown in neighborhood cinemas or preceded by a great deal of promotion. The New York audiences constitute specialized audiences who have taken the initiative to learn about this kind of cinema and are invested in it. At the same time, the knowledge these audiences acquire is again mediated through multiple layers of translation: certain ways to understand Chinese or Asian cinema; the ways these films have been promoted to specific markets; and the specific geo-political relations between countries all contribute to a new understanding of these films.
We may usefully compare NYAFF with specialized festivals that are more about cinemas from different geographic and cultural regions. One of the earliest attempts to highlight Asian cinema in Europe came through the Festival de 3 Continents at Nantes, founded in 1979 when the organizers wanted to correct mainstream film festivals’ failure to include films from Africa, South America and Asia, albeit emphasizing more serious alternative art cinema. Yet this festival, like the NYAFF, has less to do with the diasporic population of Nantes than with the desires of cultivated fans in a cosmopolitan city and nation to bring and define, through cinema, certain ideas about Asia. Udine is similar with its emphasis on Far East popular cinema. In fact, Udine can be seen as an audience or cinephilia festival that concentrates on films from Asia, evoking a specific vision of Asia in the eyes of the Europeans. Here, Asian immigrants or transnationals are not the intended audience even if they may appear as subjects. In contrast to this formation, we turn to the AAIFF, where immigrants and ethnic populations are indeed the primary audience as well as content producers.