From Asia, a sampling of vital and varied films
Imports from Japan have been an important part of the American movie scene for decades. But the rest of Asia has been underrepresented, except for kung fu trivia from Hong Kong and occasional dramas from India.
For the past six years, the Asian American International Film Festival has worked to change this by spotlighting movies with Far Eastern roots. The latest edition makes a strong case for the vitality of film in Asia, including countries not usually identified as moviemaking centers, such as South Korea and the Philippines.
After playing through this Saturday at the Rosemary Theater in Manhattan, the program begins a seven-city tour with stops in Philadelphia (scheduled to start July 22), Boston (Aug. 26), Washington (Sept. 11), Chicago (Sept. 16), Los Angeles (Oct. 7), San Francisco (Oct. 21), and Toronto (Nov. 10).
The selections are extensive, including a long list of shorts by Asian-American filmmakers and a special tribute to China-born cinematographer James Wong Howe, whose Hollywood hits range from ''The Thin Man'' to ''Funny Lady.''
The centerpieces of the festival are four Asian feature films, which I previewed earlier this month. Although they vary in quality, all are worthy reminders of how international the language of cinema is; they communicate readily with Western viewers, yet avoid the calculated, Hollywoodized look that has marked some recent imports from Eastern Europe, such as the Turkish epic ''Yol.''
Perhaps the most appealing is ''Turumba,'' a Filipino film. The director, Kidlat Tahimik, is already known to some Americans for his sardonic ''Perfumed Nightmare,'' which visited the United States a few years ago. ''Turumba'' is another study of Western influence on Filipino life, couched in delicate and often amusing terms.
The main character is a peasant boy whose father leads the town's annual ''Turumba'' festival of music, worship, and fun. The rest of the year, his family makes papier-mache figures to sell during the celebration.
Much of the film shows the family's daily life in loving detail, and during the whole first portion I thought it was a documentary. But a plot develops when a West German importer admires the papier-mache dolls and orders a huge quantity to sell back home. Suddenly the laid-back family has a thriving business, and life changes for everyone, including friends and neighbors.
It's a sly story, commenting wittily on capitalism and cultural colonialism, and making a virtue of the simplicity imposed by its evidently tiny budget. The cast features a number of Tahimik's own relatives, whose characterizations seem as authentic as everything else in this rough-hewn but amiable film.
Equally soft-spoken, though more openly dramatic, is ''My Memories of Old Beijing,'' a Chinese movie directed by Wu Yigong. Again the main character is a child, this time a girl living in pre-revolutionary China during the early 1900 s. The plot focuses largely on family events and adult-child relationships. It feels like a soap opera at times, but the moods and atmospheres are skillfully sustained.
In a big change from the didactic approach that appeared to dominate Chinese filmmaking a few years ago, there is hardly a hint of ideological bias, though social problems and persecutions play indirect parts in the story. ''My Memories of Old Beijing,'' acted and directed with quiet assurance, points to an encouraging maturity in current Chinese cinema.
''Mandala,'' directed by Lim Kwon-taik, etches a fascinating portrait of South Korea, where it was made. The central characters are two Buddhist monks, one young and eager, the other an outcast because of his profligate behavior. The plot follows their friendship over a long period, as the younger man faces unexpected temptations (shown with a sexual explicitness not found in the other features) and the other monk turns out to be seeking enlightenment after all, though in a strange and perhaps futile way.
The film takes place in present-day South Korea, with bustling Seoul as the background for some scenes. Yet most of the action unfolds in the countryside, which looks as timeless and unchanging as the religious quest of the protagonists. Split between urban and rural settings, the very structure of ''Mandala'' mirrors the split between worldly and spiritual aspirations which challenges both wandering monks. This is also the only film of the series that seems to strive for a traditionally Asian look in its colors and compositions.
The most biting of the movies is the Japanese entry, ''Willful Murder,'' by Kei Kumai. Set in 1949, the story takes a pointedly skeptical attitude toward the integrity of the American occupation after World War II.
The central incident is the death of a railway president shortly after he has laid off thousands of workers, on American orders. The hero is a reporter ferreting out the truth of the event - which many feel was a ''suicide of shame, '' but may have been a homicide. The action races along, with the quick and talky pace that newspaper movies always have.
''Willful Murder'' is the only feature in the festival to take a strong attitude - though not a very friendly one - toward the United States. It's also the only one to value speedy storytelling, Hollywood-style, over leisurely developed nuance and detail. From the evidence, therefore, Japan is still cinematically closer to the United States than the other Asian filmmaking countries are. But things are brewing in South Korea, the Philippines, and China , and even casual American moviegoers may be seeing more productions from those lands before long. Half-baked Hitchcock
Two key points about the original ''Psycho,'' directed by Alfred Hitchcock and released in 1960:
First, as Hitchcock once told me himself, he considered it a kind of dark comedy. If he had taken the story seriously, he said, he would have treated it starkly, without the broad ''mysterioso'' touches.
Second, the movie works on a plan of diminishing violence. After the notorious ''shower scene,'' with its jolting knife attack, other violent sequences are briefer and show less mayhem. Once he had the audience's imagination worked up, Hitchcock felt that there was no need to overdo things.
Psycho II, the belated sequel to Hitchcock's classic, gets the first point but misses the second. It also lacks the rhythm, the simplicity, the visual elegance, that made the original memorable and (it turns out) inimitable.
There's no question that ''Psycho II'' relishes the humorous side of Norman Bates, the ''cured'' madman and could-be killer, and the impossible situations he stumbles into. Like wry conspirators, director Richard Franklin and star Anthony Perkins play Norman's nervous charm for all it's worth, never shying away from campy laughs based on memories of the original ''Psycho.''
For an hour or so, it works marvelously. It's fun to wonder if Norman is behind the new skulduggery at the dingy Bates Motel, and savvy viewers can howl at dialogue lines like ''Norman, the sheriff wants to see you at the swamp!''
But the movie falls apart long before the end. Inexplicably, the plot starts wandering all over the place, as if the filmmakers were literally making it up as they went along. And the violence escalates, with brief but hair-raising scenes (filmed in glaring color, unlike the original) that have little to do with Hitchcock's evocations.
In a last-minute recovery, the finale is chilling, in the spirit of the first ''Psycho.'' But it points straight to a ''Psycho III,'' which I'm sure we can do without.