The New York Asian Film Festival is often defined by the presence of crime and action thrillers from Asia, and the opening two days delivers in spades. There’s the Chinese action blockbuster Operation Red Sea and the low-budget Filipino thriller We Will Not Die Tonight.
Operation Red Sea was the second-biggest action hit in China of 2017, coming only after Wu Jing’s 2016 hit Wolf Warrior 2. The film was directed by Dante Lam, who has established himself in the last decade as one of the most visceral directors of action and violence in Hong Kong Cinema. He recently brought his style to successfully direct Chinese military action movies, of which this is the second and much bigger entry after the more modest movie Operation Mekong, which is available on Netflix.
Operation Red Sea follows an elite squad from the Chinese Navy as they begin by foiling a band of Somali pirates who have taken hostages on a Chinese tanker. They must then carry out a major operation to hunt the pirate leader back to his hideout, putting themselves in enemy territory with more hostages and a French-Chinese journalist to rescue. Rather than a smooth, rah-rah operation, the squad are the underdogs here, taking serious casualties as the odds stack against them.
This is like a Michael Bay movie, with big explosions, epic landscapes, battles, and lots of violence — only it’s pushing the Chinese military instead of the US military. There’s a lot about the sacrifice and honour of heroic soldiers, but also a deepening sense of the madness and loss of war that goes beyond any pro-military movie. Like Hollywood, blockbusters are a picture of the kind of image China wants to project to the world culturally, and the takeaway here is the picture of China presenting itself as the World’s Policeman in a period when America is withdrawing from that role.
On the other end of the spectrum is Richard V. Somes’s We Will Not Die Tonight, a scrappy, low-budget punk actioner shot in eight days. Erich Gonzales plays Kray, an underpaid movie stuntperson desperate for cash to pay for her ailing father’s medical bills who ends up in the worst place at the worst time.
Her ex-boyfriend gathers her and their friends, all former teenage tearaways and martial artists, to meet a gang for what they think is a drug run for cash, only to find the scheme to be far worse than they thought. The gang wants them to snatch kids off the streets for organ harvesting. When they refuse, Kray and her friends are chased through the streets of Manila with a little girl Kray rescued, hugely outnumbered and outgunned as bodies fall in pools of blood. But there are moral lines she will never cross — and all of them are drawn on this night.
There’s a seedy, grimy grindhouse sheen to the movie, full of lurid lighting to paint nighttime Manila as Hell. The fights don’t have the slick choreography of Hong Kong martial arts movies and more the bluntness of street fighting and MMA, though if I were to nitpick, real-life fights tend to be over a lot quicker, and people do not get up again so easily.
There’s social commentary of the type only the most lurid B movies can push through with an immediacy and punch lacking in big-budget movies. This is the hell of life in Dutarte’s Philippines, where cops are authorized to shoot and murder drug dealers without due process. The gang decides not to run drugs because of that policy and opts to murder street kids for their organs instead because there isn’t a shoot-to-kill policy for that crime. The gang is from the same poor background as Kray and her friends, only given over to despair and total nihilism where vicious murder is all of a piece to them.
If there’s one thing the festival does every year, it’s the way it picks thrillers to highlight what’s on the minds of the countries making them, and these two movies are incredibly revealing for that.
The New York Asian Film Festival runs from June 28th to July 15th. The schedule and tickets can be found at the Lincoln Center Film Society website.