The 17th New York Asian Film Festival kicks off tonight at Lincoln Center and I could not be more excited. I’ve been coming to Subway Cinema’s annual extravaganza’s since before they even were the NYAFF, and they’ve never once failed to put on a good show. This year’s fest promises to be no different, with the now customary assortment of crowd-pleasers, big budget action, serious arthouse, and midnight movies. All the favorite genres are out – we’ve got the gory Korean historical epics (Age of Blood), the Hong Kong crime thrillers (Beast Stalkers), the indie Japanese zombie horror (One Cut of the Dead) and freak-outs (Smokin’ on the Moon), a Thai surprise (Premika), and a robust selection from the upstart film industries of Malaysia and the Philippines.
As usual, the festival kicks off with something new. Last year it was Bad Genius, a slick, Hollywood-ready high school thriller that showcased the maturation of Thailand’s skill. This year, it’s Japan’s turn, with the gonzo biopic Dynamite Graffiti, celebrating the ups, downs, and ups of one of Japan’s most celebrated pornographers.
Akira Suei is no Larry Flynt. More interested in composition and graphic design than spread legs, Suei oversaw an increasing empire of artistic pornographic magazines that put some of Japan’s best writers and photographers side-by-side with borderline illegal smut. Japan’s arcane obscenity laws put a premium on concealing genitals and body hair, resulting in jousting gamesmanship between the censors, represented here by a comically stiff-necked officer wearing literally fogged glasses, and Suei, who constantly walks a fine line of enterprise and self-destruction.
The film tracks Suei’s rise from lowly design student, to in-demand cabaret poster designer, to porn comic illustrator, to the editor of major magazines like New Self, Weekend Super, and Photo Age. Based on a famous autobiographical essay by the man himself, the film posits Suei as a man fundamentally shaken and affected by his mother’s explosive suicide. Even when things go his way, he can’t help but self-destruct and push buttons better left alone. She’s the Rosebud in this Citizen Kane of porn.
As Suei, Tasuku Emoto is something of a cipher. One downfall of the biopic structure is a tendency to bounce from incident to incident, hitting key points in a subject’s life without much weight. Emoto sometimes feels like he is merely floating through Suei’s life, and the resulting shaggy narrative structure falls short of transcending the form.
Dynamite Graffiti also fails its female characters. Despite women’s bodies being the key commodity in Suei’s business, the film rarely delves into their views. Women float in and out of the narrative, but none have any real character. Atsuko Maeda turns in a great performance as Suei’s long-suffering wife, but even she rarely gets much of a perspective. We’re never told what she thinks of his work, other than that she’s happy he’s working.
Nevertheless, there are a lot of passing pleasures in the incidentals, and Suei led a fascinating life. Dynamite Graffiti is an interesting glimpse into a very specific milieu, showing Suei starting up the teleclub phone sex business, cajoling women into taking their clothes off by claiming the photos are art, trying to bring eyes into the small grungy clubs that employ him. It’s not Boogie Nights, but it’s a lot of fun.
2 /12 out of 4 stars (Good). Dynamite Graffiti is playing as part of the New York Asian Film Festival 2018.