The New York Asian Film Festival is celebrating its fifth birthday this year with its largest-ever slate of films: 25 features on just two screens, most of which are making their New York or US debuts. The festival is dedicated to exploring "the latest and greatest movies from Asia," and the 2006 line-up includes works from Japan, China, Korea, India, Thailand, and Malaysia. The festival runs from June 15 to July 1; watch the official website for ticket and showtime information.

Linda Linda Linda was the biggest hit for Japanese rock band Blue Hearts. Even for those who understand only the song's chorus -- predictably "Linda, Linda! Linda, Linda Linda-a!" -- it possesses a catchiness that almost defies logic. As I sit here, fully a week after I heard the song for the first time, I can't remember a waking moment in which I was not quietly singing it to myself. The fact that I'm not remotely annoyed -- let alone suicidal -- is an indication of the song's charm, a trait it has very much in common with the 2005 Japanese film that shares its name.

Nobuhiro Yamashita's Linda Linda Linda is a straight-forward, deliberately understated movie about four girls who form a band for the talent show at their high school's annual Holly Festival. Due to injury and infighting, the membership of the band experiences a shakeup just a few days before the festival: The guitarist leaves with a broken finger, the keyboardist (Kei, Yu Kashii) switches to lead guitar, and a new singer -- a painfully shy exchange student from Korea (Son, Bae Du-na), no less -- is recruited. Lacking the time to rehearse and learn original music, the group decides to perform a set of Blue Hearts covers, highlighted, of course, by Linda Linda Linda. Faced with such a depressingly cliched plot, one could be forgiven for imagining shot after shot of adorable Japanese school girls, mugging cutely and giggling adorably over boys and rock stars. What's so wonderful about Linda Linda Linda, however, is how utterly wrong it proves us.

Instead of something glossy and loud, Yamashita's film is almost aggressively demure. The great majority of the shots of the girls are quiet and still, filmed from so far away that they're barely distinguishable from one another. The four spend a lot of time together and quickly develop a sort of awkward rapport, but there's refreshingly little bonding -- mostly they wait, silently, for one another to show up for rehearsal. Between rehearsals, though, there is time for the confusion of sexual attraction; the awkwardness of first relationships; the absurdity of love declarations, all handled with just the right touch. Not cute or self-conscious, these small scenes are agonizing and painful and funny and shrugged-off, just like they are in real life.

Scored by former Smashing Pumpkin James Iha with a lo-fi simplicity that underlines the film's languid pacing, Linda Linda Linda, is deceptively sharp. Though it has very little in the way of plot, the movie is carefully structured, dominated by contrasting scenes of characters hurrying through packed, busy spaces and slower scenes of isolation in space. As with many of the idle band scenes, the latter are almost uniformly shot from such distance as to render the individuals unrecognizable. They become instead simply figures in space; moving shapes that break up a single-color background. Combine these with the almost event-free sequences of the girls together, the periodic scenes of pre-Carnival bustle, and the footage of the drummer (Kyoko, Aki Maeda) rehearsing alone, and you have a director consumed by the rhythm of his film. And almost impossibly, given just how slow that rhythm is, Yamashita's composition turns out to be both arresting and completely winning. In the end, it's nearly as memorable as its namesake.
CATEGORIES Reviews, Cinematical