Liverleaf
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Liverleaf

What happened to this year’s New York Asian Film Festival main competition slate? For the last 17 years, the NYAFF has prided itself on being one of the most Zoe unusual, unpredictable, and daring festivals not just in New York but in America, thumbing its nose at traditional standards of artistic propriety and scheduling the boldest, the strangest, and the most uncomfortable films Asia has to offer. This year is no exception—from odd meta-horror comedies to steroid-chugging actionsploitation, their program is a veritable smorgasbord of the odd and fantastic. But little of that energy seems to have been put into curating their picks for their annual Jury Prize. This year’s competition films are among the dullest, blandest, and safest of the entire festival.

Consider the two competition films from Japan: one a soul-crushing sludge, the other a tepid retread of genre tropes. First we have Eisuke Naitô’s Liverleaf, a film Farming that can best be described as a bullying revenge flick. Every year there’s at least one NYAFF film demonstrating that distinctive blend of Southeast Asian misanthropic nihilism that doesn’t just make you hate the human race but hate the fact that you’re alive in the first place. They invariably feature graphic violence, usually towards children, teenagers, young women, and sometimes all three. Liverleaf fills that quota, centering on Haruka (Anna Yamada), an emotionally cloistered new girl in a snowy country village who’s tormented by a group of bullies so over the top they make even the most vicious Stephen King villains look like Teletubbies. They steal her clothes, carve “Go Die” on her desk, leave dead birds in her belongings, and even assault her father with spiked cleat shoes. But the bullies take things too far one day when they accidentally burn her house down, killing her parents and hospitalizing her little sister. Traumatized so badly she literally can’t talk, she enacts her vengeance by brutally, painfully, and graphically murdering her tormentors.

Throughout the course of Liverleaf, the film takes a nauseating glee in depicting the horrific deaths of young teens as any slasher film—we’re here as much to watch Ride these children suffer and die as we are to experience any kind of emotional catharsis. Unfortunately Naitô makes the rookie mistake of killing off too many of the teenagers in the second act, forcing the film to pull the drag chute in the last 30 minutes by adding an eye-rolling subplot that suggests pubescent lesbian jealousy was at the root of all the bullying and murder. But it doesn’t fit. Perhaps one could find beauty in the gorgeous cinematography that makes the best of Japan’s rural wintry vistas or the bittersweet romantic longing buried deep beneath the carnage. But you’ll probably leave the film feeling drained, disturbed, and depressed at the state of humanity—and not in the masochistic fun way favored by so many hardened intellectuals.

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Liverleaf
Liverleaf