In every die-hard cinephile’s DVD collection, at least one of the titles is bound to be from East Asia. Whether it’s a Bruce Lee classic, a big anime hit, or the latest South Korean thriller, the critical acclaim and popular success garnered by these must-see collectibles have put Asia on the movie geek’s map. Such visibility and commercial popularity, however, hasn’t always been attached to Asian films in the West. Back in the day, films from the East had limited screenings in arthouse theaters, and it was only the iconic martial arts movies that got attention in the pop culture scene. The powerful impact East Asian cinema has had, and will continue to have on global film culture, however, is a phenomenon the New York Film Festival has long followed. In the wake of its 50th year, we take a retrospective look at past films selected for NYFF, highlighting the East Asian gems that have come all the way from Japan, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and South Korea.
Yasujiro Ozu's An Autumn Afternoon (NYFF '63). Image courtesy of SHOCHIKU / THE KOBAL COLLECTION.
Since Japan was the only country to have its films screened regularly in the Western world before the fifth generation Chinese filmmakers emerged in the 1980s, it’s no surprise to see Japanese greats dominating the first fourteen years of New York Film Festival history.
Steeped in the aesthetic traditions of Kabuki and Bunraku theater, Japanese films evolved from silent stage performances to cinematic narratives that drew influences from German Expressionism and American silent film. From the signature style of Yasujiro Ozu in An Autumn Afternoon (the first Japanese film to be screened at NYFF in its first edition in 1963), to the graphic sexual desires of In The Realm Of Senses (NYFF '76), the unstoppable imagination of Studio Ghibli animations, and last year's Masterworks retrospective “Velvet Bullets and Steel Kisses: Celebrating the Nikkatsu Centennial,” the New York Film Festival has followed Japanese cinema’s exciting journey across various genres and stylistic experimentations that give a voice to the multitudinous dimensions of Japanese society.
Chen Kiege’s Farewell My Concubine (NYFF '93). Image courtesy of TOMSON FILMS/CHINA FILM / THE KOBAL COLLECTION.
Despite a history of film as extensive and innovative as Japan’s, it wasn’t until the 1980s that Chinese films saw commercial release in the United States. This was due to the Cultural Revolution of 1967 and censorship laws that stunted creativity and freedom in the Chinese film industry. Nevertheless, Chinese filmmakers of the fifth generation (the class of ’78 from Beijing Film Academy) would change the face of Chinese cinema and attract the attention of audiences from around the world, even if their films were banned domestically.
With groundbreaking films such as Chen Kiege’s Palme d’Or winner Farewell My Concubine (NYFF '93), and Zhang Yimou’s Oscar nominated Ju Dou (NYFF '90) included in past festival lineups, filmmakers striving to take fresh directions in Chinese cinema have graced New York screens with their poignant and politically reflective films. From critical political allegories to grand scale entertainment films such as House of Flying Daggers (NYFF '04) and the Infernal Affairs trilogy (NYFF '04, Special Screening), NYFF has witnessed dramatic changes in China’s cinematic form, culture, and politics.
As part of the 50th New York Film Festival Main Slate, Song Fang's Memories Look At Me will add an East Asian voice to the diverse films selected from all over the world. As the winner of the Best First Feature prize at this year’s Locarno Film Festival, this directorial debut is not to be missed!
Wong Kar-Wai's Chungking Express (NYFF '94). Image courtesy of JET TONE / THE KOBAL COLLECTION.
While Hong Kong cinema may instantly conjure images of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, slapstick sound effects, and the martial arts genre, Hong Kong’s entertainment factory grew to a staggering scale from the theatrics and acrobatics of filmed opera performances. Inspired by Wuxia stories that focus on martial arts chivalry, NYFF has seen Hong Kong’s cop genre develop with Jackie Chan’s Police Story, and the more impressionistic visual style of festival regular Wong Kar-Wai's Chungking Express (NYFF '94), evidencing diversity in Hong Kong cinema that aims to reach bigger audiences and wider appeal. Ann Hui’s exploration of immigration in Boat People (NYFF '82) and the dramatic expression of loneliness seen in Happy Together (NYFF '97) not only depict the breadth of Hong Kong’s cinematic scope in themes and ideas, but also balances the energy and internationally renown stylishness of the compelling martial arts films that are famously recognized in pop culture.
Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Flowers of Shanghai (NYFF '98). Image courtesy of 3H PRODUCTIONS / THE KOBAL COLLECTION
Taiwanese film may have taken a longer time to reach international recognition in comparison to its economically stronger neighbors, but when bold and daring filmmakers took the initiative to reinvent their nation’s film industry through a closer inspection of their historical narratives and thematic strengths, Taiwanese films played a significant role on the world stage.
Hou Hsiao-hsien’s films City of Sadness (NYFF '89), The Puppetmaster (NYFF '93), and Good Men, Good Women (NYFF '95)—all of which were screened at NYFF—stood out as highlights in the New Taiwanese Wave that reeled in international attention. Blending history, documentary, fiction, and tradition, Hou’s films continued to grace New York screens with a dramatic stylistic and thematic change in the more pop driven Goodbye, South, Goodbye (NYFF '96), and with backdrops of 19th century China’s brothels in Flowers of Shanghai (NYFF '98).
From big names such as Edward Yang and Ang Lee to critical and commercial successes including Tsai Ming-Liang's Goodbye, Dragon Inn (NYFF '03) and Lee's Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (NYFF '00), Taiwanese films have regularly found a place in NYFF’s selections. With Lee’s Life of Pi opening the 50th NYFF, it’s safe to say post-Taiwanese New Wave cinema has launched into bigger international markets and diverse audiences.
Im Kwon Taek's Chihwaseon (NYFF '02). Image courtesy of TAEHUNG PICTURES / THE KOBAL COLLECTION.
At the 44th New York Film Festival, Bong Joon Ho’s The Host (NYFF '06) was included in the long list of films from around the world. Smashing box office records at home and swimming oceans to foreign markets, The Host marked an achievement the South Korean film industry had only dreamt of reaching.
With a history of foreign invasion, and government censorship, the South Korean film industry truly rose from the ashes as Im Kwon Taek gained international recognition, finding commercial appeal and artistic vision in stories immersed in Korean tradition, folklore, and music—as seen in the NYFF selections Chunhyang (NYFF '00) and Chihwaseon (NYFF '02). With politically pointed films like To The Starry Island (NYFF '94) and The President’s Last Bang (NYFF '05), and visually visceral thrillers like Sympathy For Lady Vengeance (NYFF '05) and Mother (NYFF '09), South Korean films have become increasingly present in the New York Film Festival’s selections.
Despites their distinct styles, subjects, and contexts, East Asian cinema demonstrates a complex network of shared influences, often creating co-productions and finding audiences in their regional neighbors. As the New York Film Festival celebrates its golden anniversary, its long relationship with East Asian cinema will no doubt continue with new discoveries, new filmmakers, and new stories brought to life onscreen.