The New York Asian Film Festival is no stranger to illustrious guests. Previous attendees have included Sammo Hung Kam-bo, Simon Yam Tat-wah and Tsui Hark. But this year Grady Hendrix, one of the team of festival organisers collectively known as Subway Cinema, was especially thrilled to welcome two leading lights of Asian cinema: Hong Kong's Donnie Yen Ji-dan and South Korean actor Choi Min-sik.
Yen will receive the festival's Star Asia Award tomorrow. 'I think he's the biggest action star in the world right now, outside of Hollywood,' says Hendrix. 'Who else is there? Jackie Chan is winding down and Jet Li does movies about autism [Ocean Heaven from 2010]. They are good films, but they are not action.'
The actor has paid his dues, Hendrix says. 'He's been working in the Hong Kong film business for 30 years. He really busted his butt playing bad guys in B-movies before he became a leading man and made it big with films like Ip Man. He never quit trying. I think that is what has earned him this position.
'US fans find him a bit different in method and style. He was born in China, but grew up in Boston. That has given him a different approach. Also, his martial arts style is based on the softer form of wing chun rather than the harder northern styles Jet Li was trained in.'
Choi, who made his name internationally in Park Chan-wook's talked-about 2003 revenge drama Old Boy, proved a genial guest. The festival is screening four of his films, including the recent Nameless Gangster. 'I was shocked when Choi Min-sik said he would like to come,' says Hendrix. 'One of the co-organisers, Goran Topalovic, managed to ask him, and he surprised us by saying yes. He reeks of credibility. He is so sincere as an actor. He gives radically different performances in every film. Apparently he can drink us all under the table, too.'
Nameless Gangster is about the interface between organised crime and politics in 1980s South Korea. 'It's one of the most savage indictments of a country that doesn't work that I have ever seen. All the gangsters get government contracts. It's as if Goodfellas incorporated the Watergate scandal. It says the only difference between a gangster and the president is the name on their business cards - they are all criminals,' Hendrix says.
The three-week festival opened on June 29 with Pang Ho-cheung's Vulgaria, a bawdy comedy about a down-and-out director forced to work with a mobster on a porn film.
'Let's face it, if there is a movie featuring sex with mules, that's the one we will choose to open our festival,' says Hendrix. 'It is filthy dirty, but it is also very cleverly done. The fact that he got stars such as Chapman To Man-chat to do this kind of stuff is amazing.'