A Long, Strange Journey: An Interview with Grady Hendrix of the NYAFF

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For 10 years the New York Asian Film Festival has been bringing the best and weirdest in Asian cinema to the East Coast. From its humble beginnings at the Anthology Film Archives to a new home at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater, the NYAFF has grown to become arguably the most significant cultural event by way of film festival in North America. Grady Hendrix, co-founder of Subway Cinema and the NYAFF, was kind (masochistic?) enough take the time to answer a few questions about the festival and his connection to Asian cinema. It could be a labor of love, or maybe it’s just a sign of continued poor decision making. Either way, we got him to drink the Unwinnable Kool-Aid. Here’s what we found out.

Unwinnable: I guess a good place as any to start is to let our readers know who you are.

Grady Hendrix: I’m one of the co-founders of Subway Cinema and the New York Asian Film Festival. There are four of us who do this and I’m not sure why we haven’t found a better hobby yet.

Unwinnable: What is the mission of the NYAFF?

G.H.: The Music Palace was the last of the Chinatown movie theaters in North America. When it went up for sale in 1999, we all realized that lots of people would still bring over art films from China but who would bring over the movies where dudes punch people so hard their heads explode, or where a superhero dressed as Garfield defeats evil with bad Kung Fu or where you get to see the deadly penis gun? No one else stepped up to fill the gap, so we felt like it was our duty.

Unwinnable: How do you feel the NYAFF stands out against the city’s other film festivals?

G.H.: Most festivals rely on a host of programmers and guests handlers and administrators and so on and so forth. All four of us personally watch close to 300 movies every year to select about 40 for the festival. We know these films. We stand in the back of the theater and watch the audience watching them. We sell t-shirts. We write the program book. We do the press. We lug fliers around town. If you want a processed, airline meal film festival, there are plenty to choose from. If you want something that’s made with love, hard work and a lot of care, there’s us.

Unwinnable: What is your standard or criteria in selecting films for the festival?

G.H.: Three of the four of us have to like it. That’s it. That explains how a sensitive portrayal of living with autism (Ocean Heaven) is snuggling up next to Horny House of Horror on our screening schedule.

Unwinnable: What is the film that drew you into Asian cinema? Is there a particular film that made you realize others needed to experience Asian Cinema?

G.H.: For me it was a double feature of Always Be a Winner and Stephen Chow’s Love on Delivery which blew my mind back in 1994. A nonstop barrage of hand amputations, superheroics, bizarre gambling tricks, a bad version of “Funkytown” and an ode to how to win by cheating others – I was in love.

Unwinnable: What would you say is the standout film of the festival?

G.H.: The Tsui Hark movies are the ones we’re really excited about. Back in 2001 we did a retrospective of his work, so it means a lot to all of us to bring him here in person in 2011 for our anniversary. Screening The Blade, Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain, Dragon Inn and Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame are our birthday presents to ourselves.

Unwinnable: In the last 10 years you guys have come a long way. How does it feel moving from the Lower East Side/East Village to Lincoln Center?

G.H.: Strange.

Unwinnable: Speaking of 10 years, how does it feel sharing your anniversary with Versus and Battle Royale?

G.H.: A lot of fun. It’s weird to think we’re as old as those movies. Ugh – someone please kill us.

Unwinnable: What would you say was the defining moment for you guys in the last 10 years?

G.H.: I can’t speak for the other guys, but for me it’s standing in the back of the theater watching the audience watch movies. It’s so much fun to see people having a blast at these movies, and it makes me proud that we’ve helped some very daring dates go well and given them something to talk about before the alcohol and sex.

Unwinnable: The NYAFF is such a rich cinematic experience and truly an asset to this city. That being said, what are your plans for the next 10 years?

G.H.: One year at a time. Right now, in the middle of the festival, I’m a little fragile. So one year at a time. Every year we swear we’ll never do it again, and then we do it again. Let’s hope this kind of poor impulse control continues.

Unwinnable: Recently some of Team Unwinnable debated the best Kung Fu star of all time. Care to weigh in?

G.H.: For me it’s Jackie Chan. No question. He made action movies funny, he didn’t take himself too seriously and he’s a truly gifted performer and a great filmmaker. Watch a film like Project A II or Mr. Canton and Lady Rose and you’ll see that his movies are as gorgeously crafted, on a technical level, as anything by Scorsese or Coppola. And I’ll take Jackie Chan over Jack any day.

With Kurt Christenson


The NYAFF continues until July 14. Check out the line-up here.

Peter’s own Horny House of Horror can be found here.