Normalcy never has been the standard in previous incarnations of East X West. In past years, the Asian cinema sidebar—curated by actor, director, and self-avowed fanboy Tim Matheson—has distinguished itself with esoteric masterpieces from Thailand, both Chinas, Japan, and Korea, and mostly outré film genres: ghost stories, revenge tales, martial arts epics, and fantasies.
This year, however, seems richly different. Probably the best film in the group is a dark philosophical comedy about contemporary alienation from Korea titled Castaway on the Moon, which features no spaceships, aliens, or Sam Rockwell. What it does have is a story of two people, one a suicide victim who ends up stuck on an island with a view of Seoul, and the other a woman living vicariously through the Internet. It’s a little long, but full of tricky turns and performances. The other Korean film you might imagine would be bafflingly weird, Mother, by Joon-ho Bong (who gave us the great monster movie The Host), turns in a surprisingly slow-paced thriller about an obsessive mother and her unjustly accused (and disturbed) son. You have to wait for the signature moments of hilarious violence, but it’s worth it. Then there’s Amalfi: Rewards of the Goddess, a graceful yet conventional political thriller from Japan, and Crows Zero II, a stylish (and sometimes dull) gang melodrama. My pick for genre-busting outrageousness, however, is Private Eye, a Korean costume film set in a weirdly shifting period that mixes stunningly bloody moments with wacky slapstick. I missed the ghosts and demons, but it’s obviously patronizing to expect only absurdity from Asian filmmakers. This is healthy reinforcement that tells us world cinema is full of surprises, even if they’re ordinary pleasures.