It Takes Two: 2013 San Francisco International Film Festival & San Francisco Global Vietnamese Film Festival
Spring has sprung and two film festivals are popping up this weekend here in the Bay, offering a bunch of Asian and Asian American films to pick from.
The 2013 edition of the San Francisco International Film Festival kicks off this week with a huge menu of movies from all over the planet. And the bienniel San Francisco Global Vietnamese Film Festival offers a more select but equally outstanding bill of fare.
I previewed a couple films that are a good indicator of the range and quality of the offerings this year at the SFIFF. Kenji Uchida’s Key Of Life is a fun and quirky, somewhat absurd comedy that follows a suicidal actor and a hitman who switch lives after the hitman loses his memory and the actor impulsively takes on his identity. Veteran actor Teruyuki Kagawa (Tokyo Sonata) is outstanding as Kondo, the confounded hitman, playing both bewildered amnesiac and serious-as-a-heart-attack assassin with equal conviction. Also fun is Ryoko Hirosue as Kanae, a nerdy girl desperately seeking a man to marry before her terminally ill father dies. Masako Sakai plays Sakurai, the suicidal actor who’s the third of the trio of main characters, as a hopeless slacker, yet one who rises to the occasion when in dire circumstances. Director Uchida, who’s an alumnus of San Francisco State’s Cinema Department, keeps the story briskly moving along and brings a droll touch to the twisty plot, but it’s the small details that really make this movie stand out, such as Kondo gamely donning Sakurai’s slightly too small, very nerdy clothes.
A wholly enjoyable movie to watch, Key Of Life is full of plot switchbacks that keep you guessing throughout, and the resolution of the three main characters’ various dilemmas is sweet, satisfying, and very funny. The movie is all about second chances and making the most of opportunities once life swerves from its expected route, and it’s one of the most pleasurable filmgoing experiences I’ve had in a while.
A very different kind of movie is Kalyanee Mam’s A River Changes Course, which won the World Cinema Documentary Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Mam’s film is quite beautiful and moving in its examination of the corrosive effects of global capitalism on a rural Cambodia family. In the encroachment of what the farmers call “the companies,” or the multinational corporations that are buying and developing the land, the movie details a vicious cycle of forests cut or burned down, rice failing to grow due to drought, villagers contracting intestinal diseases from contaminated water, and the overfishing of the river, leading to families splitting up and the disruption of traditional ways of life.
No one smiles in this movie. After the farmers fall into debt from taking out loans to buy seed, women are forced to take factory jobs in the city sewing baby clothes for US$60 a month, and sons have to leave home to work for “the Chinese” in distant cassava fields. The film makes an strong statement about the destruction of lives and environments in Cambodia—lamenting the deforestation of the land one woman says, “We are not afraid of wild animals any more, we are afraid of people cutting down the forest.” Yet the movie does so with a delicate touch, never becoming polemical or preachy. Director Mam instead allows the grim faces of the displaced farmers and the tiny gestures of everyday life to tell the tale, as young kids endlessly gut and cut the heads off of dozens of small fish, small girls tote infant sisters to and from the fields, and endless rows of women in red bandannas bend over iron gray sewing machines in a garment factory.
The film doesn’t over-romanticize the hardships of village life, but it points out the difference between the villagers working for themselves versus toiling for “the companies,” and as such is an indictment of the destructive human cost of global capitalism’s implacable march.
Also this weekend is the San Francisco Global Vietnamese Film Festival at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco. A much more intimate affair than the SFIFF, the festival nonetheless includes outstanding work including Norwegian Wood, Tran Anh Hung’s adaptation of the popular Haruki Murakami novel, Tony Nguyen’s Enforcing The Silence, a documentary exploring the political rifts within the Vietnamese American community, and several short films including Viet Le’s “sexperimental music video” Love Bang!
San Francisco International Film Festival
April 25-May 9, 2013
tickets and schedule here
San Francisco Global Vietnamese Film Festival
April 26-28, 2013
3117 16th Street
San Francisco CA 94110
Although it’s got its share of body slams and bloody fisticuffs, Fists of Legend, (now playing in select multiplexes in the U.S.) is a nice change of pace from the typical extreme South Korean fare that shows up in U.S. movie houses. In contrast to gangland thriller New World or spy flick Berlin Files, the two most recent Korean movies to roll through town, Fists of Legend is a surprisingly gentle and warmhearted piece of filmmaking. Despite its pugilistic trappings, it’s much more than just a fight movie.
The 2.5 hour-plus movie centers around Legendary Fist, a mixed martial arts reality show that pits former teenage streetfighters, now paunchy and in their forties, against trained MMA fighters. Among the middle-aged gladiators is Lim Deok-kyu (Hwang Jung-Min), a former teenage boxer who now owns a noodle shop. His wife died long ago, his angsty teenage daughter is in trouble at school, and his noodle shop is failing, so Deok-kyu signs up for Legendary Fist for the $20,000 prize money and a chance to redeem himself in his daughter’s eyes.
Despite its sometimes gory fistfighting scenes, Fists of Legend is not so much Thunderdome as it is a critique of contemporary South Korean social and cultural mores. The movie alternates between swaggering 1980s high school kids and their modern-day middle-aged incarnations, bouncing through bullying, father-daughter dynamics, media culture, teenage cliques, corporate corruption, and cronyism, among many other topics, in its long, sometimes meandering cinematic journey.
The sincere and slightly homely Hwang Jung-Min, who was outstanding as the hotheaded loose cannon in New World, is awesome as the noodle shop owner trying let go of the past. Also good is Yoon Je-moon as the corporate toady who learns to stand up for himself. The bad guys are somewhat one-dimensional but the many good guys have a lot of heart and depth. The film is also refreshingly unglamourous in its portrayal of midlife existence, although the fit and trim Hwang does have some pretty cut abs.
All in all the narrative’s bobs and weaves make for a fun and diverting way to spend 154 minutes. It’s not a classic, but it’s good, solid commercial entertainment.
NOTE: The increased number of Korean films gaining theatrical release in the U.S. is part of the resurgent Korean Wave now devouring the U.S. pop culture landscape. Following up his billion-views youtube megahit Gangnam Style, PSY’s latest MV Gentleman has as of this date reached 110 million hits and counting in the three days since its official release. The astoundingly hot Lee Byung-hun is tearing it up shirtless-style in the hit Hollywood actioner GI Joe: Redemption. Kia is apparently the trendy new auto line amongst young groovesters. And Korean Fried Chicken is the ono grind of choice among late-night post-club snackers.
My pal Durian Dave tipped me to an excellent upcoming film series at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Thai Dreams: The Films of Pen-ek Ratanaruang. Though not quite as much the international filmi darling as his countryman Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Ratanaruang has nonetheless garnered critical attention for his unconventional, atmospheric crime films. Six of his movies will be on view at YBCA for a three-week run, with the director in person April 4 at the screening of his latest film, Headshot (2011), and at the April 7 screening of Nymph (2009).
Ratanaruang teamed up with Japanese superstar Tadanobu Asano (Ichi The Killer; Thor) and Australian cinematographer Christopher Doyle (famed for his work with Wong Kar-Wai, among many others) for a pair of films included in the YBCA series. Last Life In The Universe (2003) follows Kenji (Asano), a Japanese librarian living in Thailand whose desultory attempts at suicide are interspersed with his equally desultory meanderings around Bangkok. Due to its overuse in describing Thai films I hesitate to use the word dreamlike, but in this case the term is quite apt. The film’s multilingual dialogue and lovely color scheme, with its burnished greens and browns, Chris Doyle’s gliding camerawork and deep-focus compositions, and the languid narrative pace possess the half-remembered structure of dreams. The film is leavened with an absurdist humor occasionally punctuated by brief bursts of violence, but the real story is the development of Kenji’s relationship with Noi, a woman he meets during one of his suicide attempts. After a tragic accident, the two retire to Noi’s incredibly cluttered and filthy beach house, which starkly contrasts with Kenji’s meticulously kept apartment, and slowly develop a friendship. Here Ratanaruang shows a pleasantly light touch, combining Doyle’s keen eye for color and composition with a delicate narrative sensibility. There is a quite beautiful sequence where Noi’s house cleans itself, with books and papers flying through the air like the toys in Mary Poppins’ nursery, suggesting the mystic quality of Noi’s relationship with Kenji. Sporting a pageboy haircut and glasses, Tadanobu Asano is suitably restrained in his librarian role, with only a few brief glimpses of his full-back tat suggesting a history of violence.
Ratanaruang’s second film with Asano and Doyle, Invisible Waves (2006), proceeds in a similarly languid fashion. Passive hitman Kyochi (Asano) poisons his girlfriend, who is also the mistress of his mobster boss, then goes on the lam across Southeast Asia, which as shown here is much less exciting than it sounds. Kyochi endures a Kafka-esque boat ride in a janky cruise ship cabin and briefly wanders through Phuket, getting mugged in a fleabag hotel before the boss’s boys catch up with him. Asano’s quiet charisma anchors the film, along with a dark, fatalistic humor and Christopher Doyle’s brilliant compositions. A bit more linear than Last Life, the film nonetheless meanders similarly through its narrative without a huge amount of action. Mysterious blood smears, a cute baby, karaoke-loving hatchet men, and cameos by Hong Kong performers Maria Cordero and Eric Tsang populate the stark scenario.
Headshot, Ratanaruang’s most recent film, follows Tul, a morose and disillusioned cop who becomes a hitman, mixes it up with various bad guys, falls for prostitute, and becomes a monk, not necessarily in that order. Unversed as I am in Buddhism, the film’s references to that belief system were very opaque to me—perhaps to another less philistine viewer they would have more resonance. Not quite as sublime as Last Life or Invisible Waves, Headshot wavers between violent action and long expository sequences, but the film’s non-linear narrative and Tul’s existential search for a moral higher ground elevates the film above a standard genre exercise.
Also included in the YBCA series are the black comedy 6ixty9ine (1999); Ploy (2007), which looks at love, desire, and betrayal; and Nymph, a surreal stroll through a haunted Thai jungle.
Thai Dreams: The Films of Pen-ek Ratanaruang
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
April 4-21, 2013
Full schedule and tickets here.
Another year, another San Francisco Asian American International Film Festival, except now it’s been rebranded as CAAMfest, which certainly rolls off the tongue more easily than the previous moniker. The festival has added a tagline (film, music, food) that’s a nod to the increased presence of the audio and gustatory arts, but it doesn’t mean that movies are taking a backseat. As per usual there are more than a hundred new Asian and Asian American flicks in this year’s festival—below are a few preview picks.
I don’t need to tell you that this is a great Cinderella story, but filmmaker Evan Jackson Leong has taken the familiar material and shaped a charming and inspiring documentary about everyone’s favorite Asian American underdog. Jeremy Lin turns out to be funny, self-aware, and loquacious and Leong uses his longstanding access to his subject (he started shooting the film when Lin was at Harvard) to great effect. Interviews with Lin’s friends and family members, home videos of the budding basketball prodigy, and great coverage of the actual Linsanity phenomenon makes this a super-fun, captivating movie. The movie also touches on the racism and discrimination faced by Lin, the NBA’s first Asian American superstar, as well as Lin’s devout Christianity, but Lin is such a self-effacing guy and Leong so skillfully handles these elements that they work seamlessly into the whole picture.
A solid film noir set in Manila and directed by Filipino American Ron Morales (Santa Mesa, 2008), Graceland looks at the repercussions of the kidnapping of a pair of young girls. Dark and moody, the film questions the morality of its various characters and, like the best noirs, no one is above scrutiny, everyone is guilty, and everyone has something to hide. The cast is lead by a nervous, sweaty performance by Arnold Reyes as the desperate father trying to save his daughter and who has many hard choices to make. The film also indicts the sex trade, corrupt policemen, and shady politicians—this is classic hardboiled stuff and well worth a look.
When The Bough Breaks
Ji Dan’s verite documentary about a poor Chinese family living in a hovel on the outskirts of Beijing examines the effects of China’s rapidly expanding economy, which has ironically left many in dire economic and social straits. The father is a laborer, the daughters are adolescents trying to find money for themselves and/or their preteen brother to go to a decent school (one “sponsor,” a sick elderly man, offers to fund their education if they’ll sleep with him), and upward mobility is nowhere to be found. As if that wasn’t enough, Dad is a tyrannical drunk who verbally abuses his family at any opportunity, Mom is angry and fed up, and the teenagers are already learning to psychologically torment each other. Plus, the family’s eldest daughter has gone missing for some years after being lured into prostitution by the false promise of a factory job folding cardboard boxes. Overlong, somewhat shapeless, and leaning toward poverty porn, the film is interesting nonetheless due to the tenacity of the two younger daughters who grimly soldier on in the face of a bleak existence.
When Night Falls
Another film set in China, this narrative examines the notorious case of a young man who is driven to commit murder by that country’s oppressive police force. Ai Wei Wei made a documentary about the same case, but this film focuses on travails of the man’s mother as she tries to unravel her son’s unfortunate fate. The movie is composed primarily of long, stationary shots that emphasize the delicate action within the frame, lending a sense of oppression, immediacy, and intimacy to the film.
Also of note in the fest: Debbie Lum’s sharp and observant documentary, Seeking Asian Female, which is all about white dudes with yellow fever (full review here); The Land of Hope, Sion Sono’s second feature set in the Fukashima tsunami zone (full review here); the omnibus film Beautiful 2012, which includes Hong Kong director Ann Hui’s short narrative My Way, starring Francis Ng as a transgendered woman (!) (full review here), and Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s latest dreamwork, The Mekong Hotel. The festival is also presenting a brief retrospective of director Royston Tan, including Old Romances, his documentary elegy to old-time Singapore, the maniacal musical 881, and his debut feature 15, which looks at teenage angst, Singaporean-style. I’ll be interviewing the director onstage live at the Pacific Film Archive following the screening of 15, so be there!
March 14-24, 2013
San Francisco and Berkeley, CA
full schedule and ticket information here.
Just attending the vernissage for a couple of excellent new shows at the San Jose Museum of Art. It was a bit of a drive from my San Francisco homebase but both exhibitions were well worth the gas and time traveled to get there.
Rising Dragon: Contemporary Chinese Photography is a survey of work from Chinese artists that looks at the rapidly changing social, cultural, and political landscape of the world’s most populous nation. As I was just in Southern China last fall I was particularly looking forward to seeing the show, and it didn’t disappoint. Ranging from street photography to portraiture to manipulated digital images, the show is a good cross-section of recent work that includes artists from urban centers such as Beijing, Guangzhou, and Shanghai as well as those from farther-flung provinces like Sichuan and Fujian.
Much of the work in the show addresses China’s rapidly changing society, looking at toxic waste, overdevelopment, industrial pollution, westernization, cultural appropriation, and the reclamation of Chinese history and culture amidst the onslaught of modernization. Several of Rising Dragon’s artists deal head-on with China’s environmental degradation and destruction. Yao Lu’s New Landscapes series depicts what at first glance appears to be traditional Chinese landscape paintings, with pastoral scenes of mountains enshrouded by mist and clouds. Upon closer examination, however, these images turn out to be photographs of the massive mounds of garbage covered in green netting that can be found throughout China.
Similarly, Wen Fen’s series Sitting On The Wall documents the impact of China’s accelerated urbanization. Shot in the same location over the course of more than a decade, Wen’s photographed a schoolgirl sitting on a wall overlooking the once-distant Haikou cityscape. As the years pass the skyscrapers become larger and move closer to the girl until the wall is torn down and the nearest building sits right on the edge of the frame.
Liyi + Liubo’s photographs take a more whimsical look at China’s social landscape, with their staged tableaux inspired by headlines from China’s infamously sensationalist tabloid newspapers. Self-explanatory titles include Failing to Steal Anything, a Thirteen-year-old girl Sets Fire to Classmate’s Home; Karaoke Hostess Forced To Drink Intoxicant, Now Under Police Investigation; and An Escapee Being Chased Dropped Through The Top Floor of a Building and Scared Everyone.
An unintended irony of the exhibition is the siting of Rising Dragon in Silicon Valley—the high-tech industry has outsourced much of its manufacturing to China, thus possibly contributing to the overly rapid industrialization that has lead to the destruction of China’s environment and the breakdown of its social structures. By addressing these and other aspects of 21st-century China, the show is a good primer on new photography from that country and demonstrates the ongoing vitality and innovation of its art scene.
Also on view at the SJMA is New Stories From The Edge of Asia: This/That, a show of Asian American artists organized by SJMA’s senior curator Monica Ramirez-Montagut. Included in this exhibition is a mini-retrospective of work by San Francisco’s own MOB/Mail Order Brides, aka Jenifer Wofford, Eliza O. Barrios, and Reanne Estrada, aka Baby, Neneng, and Imaculata. The MOB were there in person to introduce their newest project, Manananggoogle, that links the world of Silicon Valley women with the manananggal, the Filipino mythological creature that, among other things, eats the hearts of human fetuses. The MOB attempt to reclaim the myth of the manananggal by parallelling its often-misunderstood image with misogynistic stereotypes of female corporate executives. As always, the Brides exploit their singular brand of humor, irony, and cosplay to examine what it means to be pinay.
Also notable is Landless In Second Life, Tran T. Kim-Trang’s three-channel video project that utilizes the popular online platform to look at biculturalism and filial piety. In a kind of virtual version of hell bank notes, Tran builds an online dream home for her deceased mother, populating it with avatars from her immediate family and with icons from both the U.S. and Vietnam.
The show also includes an installation of The Heart’s Mouth by Erica Cho, a sleek narrative film about love, gender, and identity, and some of Mike Lai’s continued explorations of his Bruce Lee fetish. This included a performance piece during the opening reception that pitted Aztec dancers against Lai’s oversized Bruce Lee Fists of Fury puppets in a volleyball/dodgeball tournament played out on a floor-sized map of the United States.
All in all the two shows nicely complement each other. Each deals with culture, politics, identity, and race from both sides of the Pacific, with wit, style, and humor.
As I watched our President sworn in for his second term this week I was pleased to note that in his inauguration speech he gave a shout-out to the Stonewall riots and made encouraging noises about marriage equality. Though subtle and fleeting, it was a definite indicator of the mainstreaming of the LGBT movement.
This is especially evident after seeing David France’s stunning new documentary, How To Survive A Plague, which focuses on the early days of the AIDS crisis in the U.S. The contrast is stark between President Obama’s careful but inclusive mention of LGBT rights and the Reagan/Bush administration’s rampant homophobia and indifference to the AIDS crisis in the 1980s and 90s. France’s film specifically looks at the efforts of ACTUP (AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power) in New York City as that grassroots organization sought to increase awareness of the epidemic and to pressure the government to develop treatments for the disease.
As one who lived through those times the film was very hard to watch in several spots, bringing back memories of the countless early deaths that devastated the gay community, here in San Francisco as well as in New York City and around the world. Though it’s very New York white middle-class male-centric (hello, Haiti?) it’s nonetheless a well-made and impressive piece of filmmaking. The documentary traces the stories of several young, mostly HIV-positive men who take up the struggle after the U.S. government fails to address the epidemic (then-President Ronald Reagan didn’t publicly utter the word “AIDS” until 1987, more than six years after the first case was diagnosed). The film follows several of these newly minted activists as they pressured the government, the medical establishment, and the pharmaceutical companies to search for effective treatments for AIDS.
The genesis of ACTUP coincided with the widespread use of the camcorder and the film is comprised primarily of historical camcorder footage interspersed with modern-day interviews. Although it took my digitally acclimated eye a little while to adjust to the unsharp VHS and Hi8 footage, the softer, fuzzier images are very evocative of the time and ultimately become a visual signifier for the era. Though not as crisp and clear as modern-day digital recordings, the footage is nonetheless powerful and moving as it documents seminal moments such as ACTUP’s infamous 1989 St. Patrick’s Cathedral “die-in,” the confrontation between ACTUP member Bob Rafsky and then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton (who gives as good as he gets, by the way), and the capping of extreme homophobe and all-around dickwad Senator Jesse Helms’ house in a massive canvas jimmy hat. The handheld, lo-fi quality emphasizes the immediacy of the footage and one archival sequence in particular, where dozens of protestors fling the ashes of loved ones who have died of AIDS onto the White House lawn, becomes astoundingly powerful in its intimacy.
Director France skillfully weaves together historical footage of the often-contentious ACTUP meetings (one featuring fire-breathing playwright Larry Kramer lambasting the bickering factions), various demonstrations, interventions, and acts of civil disobedience, and more personal footage of several significant participants, following them to their eventual fates. Sadly, for many including performance artist Ray Navarro, this means death from AIDS-related illnesses. After witnessing Navarro gleefully skewer the religious right as he performs as Jesus in early ACTUP demonstrations, it’s painful and poignant to watch his last days captured on video as he succumbs to blindness and delirium. The film follows other individuals who meet similar fates and, after watching video footage of them playing with their children at birthday parties or speaking out eloquently against ignorance and homophobia, their deaths are deeply felt losses. The film effectively captures the horror of the era as seemingly healthy young men are articulate and strong one day and are frail and dying of opportunistic infections and Kaposi’s sarcoma the next.
Some may argue that the movie is just another rehash of the ACTUP/Larry Kramer/New York City mythology that’s way too focused on a small group of gay white men to the exclusion of the rest of those affected by AIDS. To be fair, there are a couple women activists included (but their stories aren’t followed to the extent of the men in the movie), Latino artist and DIVA-TV member Ray Navarro has a featured role, and some of the b-roll includes images of African American men. Would the film have been a more inclusive and representative picture of the AIDS epidemic if there had more Haitians or females or people of color included? Sure. Would that make it a better, more powerful film? Not necessarily, it would just make it a different film. As it stands, the emotional and visceral impact is there, the craft is there, and the storytelling chops are there. Despite its somewhat narrow worldview, the movie makes a strong case for grassroots organizing and for standing up to institutional indifference, hostility, and outright discrimination, and for that it’s a significant and important piece of work.
I recently had the chance to sit down with Patrick Wang, the director, writer, and star of the amazing indie narrative film In The Family, which just opened its second theatrical run in San Francisco. In The Family is possibly the most surprising film of the year (longer review here), a family drama that steers clear of melodrama even when dealing with tragedy, a movie about a gay interracial family living in the South that’s not about identity, and a film by a first-time director that displays a singular vision and directorial style that recalls work by filmmakers like Ozu, Bergman and Hou Hsiao-hsien. Patrick proved to be as thoughtful in person as his filmmaking suggests, discussing the movie’s unusual distribution trajectory, his love for seeing the film in a theater with a live audience, and how being an outsider to the film world can be an artistic advantage.
beyond asiaphilia: How are you liking it back in SF?
Patrick Wang: I’m really excited because I was here for the (San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival) and I wasn’t able to be here for the opening. This week I get to spend a whole week here—-these days I don’t get to spend a whole week anywhere (laughs).
BA: I was kind of wondering about that—-what’s up with this distribution pattern, it’s kind of random—or is this intentional?
PW: Y’know, it keeps changing. I am the distributor and part of it is that I’m learning as I go along. I think you have to do some of that with every film, so I’ve just been figuring it out. Every few weeks a new opportunity comes up or something doesn’t work out quite the way we hoped so we have to readjust. There are other Bay Area theaters watching what happens this week so if we do well they’ll pick us up pretty quickly. And I’m kind of learning that pattern as well.
BA: But you were here in San Francisco already—-right after the Festival? It’s okay if you come back?
PW: It’s one of those things that—-it’s what’s normal and then, um (laughs). And all I see is there’s this huge gulf between the number of people who have seen it and those who would like it and would get something out of the experience, and I’m going to keep trying to bridge that gulf.
We do a lot of things we’re not supposed to. First of all, we’re not supposed to keep playing this long. People told me at the beginning, “You gotta get your DVD going,” and I said, “No, I’m not ready for that, I still haven’t finished—”
BA: The touring around?
PW: Well, its life in theaters, that’s not done, and I’m barely starting to understand it, there’s still work to be done there. So, yeah, we’ll leave a city, we’ll come back to some cities many times.
BA: Which ones have you come back to?
PW: Miami, Chicago, we just reopened in New York
BA: And people come in?
PW: And people come in, and actually more people. It’s funny, word of mouth is just—-y’know, there’s manufactured word of mouth, which behaves a certain way, and there’s real word of mouth—-for it to organically happen takes time. And it’s a question mark, y’know—if the time we’re giving it and the opportunities we’re creating for people to see it in the theaters will ever align.
BA: That’s interesting because it kind of reflects the aesthetic of the movie itself, right? I mean you have these long takes—-I wonder where that comes from. You’re from theater, I know, but you’re also an economist, and you do other stuff. You weren’t even in film at all—
PW: I didn’t do much, y’know, I acted in a couple (films) and that’s pretty much it. But you know, it’s funny that you sometimes hit these points in life where different strands of your life that seem completely unrelated and completely in different camps kind of come together. And I think everything from the work I did as an economist managing a team—people think, oh, it’s in the business side, but no, it’s the managing the team and realizing how to balance the use of hard and soft powers, and how to help people do what they’re good at, and help them realize that, that’s directing.
And there was a time when I taught kindergarten, and that came back to be useful, too, because I know how five- and six-year-olds talk and I know how to work with that.
BA: As well as the grown-up five- and six-year-olds, I guess.
PW: Uh huh.
BA: That’s pretty cool that you were able draw on different parts of your life together to work on this project. I think a lot of people don’t realize that a lot of the filmmaking is the marketing and getting it out there, people watching it.
PW: Yeah, and I hope this doesn’t happen to too many other films, but y’know, a good film—-you’re sometimes left with no one else willing to do something for it and so you have to decide if you’re going to do it for yourself. And some filmmakers, very understandably, don’t know or aren’t interested or can’t do that.
BA: So you’re outside life experience has helped with that—
PW: It’s helped but I think the really big thing is just I saw what happened in the first few audiences when we screened it in New York and I just—-it made me angry that people were not getting the opportunity to see this. It’s this opportunity and I did not want it to be lost. It’s this film that can do a lot of good and now it needed a way to do that and I was willing to learn what that took.
BA: And you’re sort of learning on the job, I guess.
PW: I am learning on the job, but you know, it’s not unlike the filmmaking—-you have certain experiences you bring in. A lot is new and you figure it out, and actually it is very similar to filmmaking—-you put together this team to make the movie, and I kind of put together this team to help get the movie out. And the way we broke rules in the making of the movie, we’re breaking rules in the distribution, too!
BA: So, you’re fairly self-taught so you don’t have expectations about what you need to do—-I don’t want to use the word “outsider” because that seems sort of hierarchical, but you’re not trained from film school, which is a really particular way of thinking of how you have to make a movie or how you have to deal with the movie business.
PW: Yeah, and I really like that word “outsider” because I think it’s very useful. Like every field of endeavor, whether it’s in the arts or something else, I feel like the outsider is very valuable, someone not engrained in the conventions or the general thinking about a kind of long-term path. I think what weighs down a lot of young filmmakers is their head is already in their career and their next two movies. So I feel like there’s quite a bit of freedom being from the outside, of having no expectations for how the thing is received or what’s the next step in your career.
BA: But you must be thinking a little bit about that?
PW: I think a little bit about that but not so much that it changes what I do. I guess that’s the key thing, you want to think enough that you create some opportunities but not so much it changes the important decisions you’re making about your project now, the one that’s right in front of you.
BA: Is that something that’s inherent in your personality, is that something you’ve learned? I mean, it does kind of reflect the filmmaking itself—-
PW: I don’t know, but there is this funny parallel, and I hope I have that very satisfying third act (laughs) that the film has.
BA: Well, I think there’s a certain tenacity the way you’ve approached the film itself. I’ve read about the directing experience—-it’s not that people openly fought you but I know that the way you made the movie is not like a conventional way to shoot a movie and the way you’re distributing it is kind of interesting too—-someone I know said, “It’s coming back to San Francisco?”
PW: (laughs) I think it’s definitely unpredictable, and that’s what keeps me interested in filmmaking and that’s what keeps me interested in the distribution.
BA: So do you prefer people seeing it the theater?
PW: I absolutely do.
BA: Why is that?
PW: I think that there’s this focus that the theater allows. You can’t push “pause” in the theater. And other people, you feel them. Even if it’s a small crowd you to feel them and you feel some sort of responsibility that’s different—-the manners type of responsibility, as in we’re sharing a space and this is how we behave, but there’s also some sort of social responsibility that kind of jumps to life as people interact with this movie amongst other people. And there’s also the sharing of the emotion—-you hear and you feel it in the audience and it forms this type of comfort that you can’t get at home.
BA: That’s an interesting way to describe it. It’s like you’re very bonded to people you don’t know.
PW: There’s this one part in the film that I never expected would be a high point. There’s sort of a series of events and actions that Chip does when they come back from the funeral and when he clinks glasses—-people remember that detail when they’ve seen it at home, they remember that scene, but there’s this release in the theater, people laugh—-there’s like this communal exhale. And it’s across all cultures, it happens here in the U.S., Canada, Brazil, it happened in Taiwan. It’s so unpredictable to me—-I never expected that to be such a vocal moment. But somebody made the point that that will only happen in the theater.
BA: Someone said that you’ve seen the movie a lot of times—-
PW: I’ve seen the movie a lot of times—-I think we’re getting close to 200.
BA: That’s a lot of times.
BA: But you enjoy it every time, it sound like—-you get something out of it.
PW: I still get a lot out of it, and I think it’s mostly because it’s people—-it’s kinda like, y’know, it’s 200 people, (laughs). Y’know, you don’t say, I’ve had enough of people, I don’t need to meet anyone else (laughs).
BA: That could come from being in the theater and performing arts, too, right?
PW: Exactly, and someone had a very interesting way of putting it. A part of the performance is on screen, and then part of it is that the audience performs, and that performance is gonna change.
BA: And so that’s still really interesting to you—-
PA: Yeah, and especially some cities, I mean, obviously San Francisco’s huge, there’s lots of voices, local voices opining and talking about the film, but you get to a smaller town and there’s nobody in town that’s reviewing the movie or that’s talking about the movie and so you kind of have to go in there to see what it’s doing.
BA: So what about these small towns, what’s the response been? What’s the smallest city you’ve played?
PW: Y’know, there’s a town, fairly small—-I mean it’s not tiny, I mean it used to be the largest or the second-largest in Maryland—-Cumberland, Maryland. And it was such a feeling of community—-it was at a community college. And it’s people who have had some challenges in life. It’s definitely not an arthouse crowd! The arthouse crowds are wonderful but these are people who have probably never seen an art film. That’s the thing, you get a range, like anywhere.
BA: And how did they like the movie?
PW: They loved it, and some of the smartest commentary and questions—
BA: They could relate to it.
PW: Yeah. And I think that there’s some sort of pride, actually, in smaller towns that we screen in—-the same way there’s a pride in Tennessee, in that “we’re proud this movie takes place there and it reflects the range of what we’re capable of there.”
BA: It’s a very nuanced view of that part of the world that you don’t usually get. I know you deliberately chose to set the movie in the South, and that was interesting-—you’re from Texas.
PW: I’m from Texas!
BA: Do you consider that the South?
PW: Y’know, it’s up for debate (laughs). Different people consider it different things-—I do. But I didn’t set it in Texas because I didn’t want it to be too familiar. I wanted someplace for me to go, because if there’s a place for me to go, I feel like the discovery is a little more honest for the audience, too. Same thing for the story, too—-I didn’t know quite where it was going, and I think that translates to the audience’s experience. It’s not quite predictable.
But everyone I’ve met from Tennessee the few times I’ve been there—-there’s something I see in a middle-class life in Tennessee that is, in my view, dramatic, but I think in most films is not particularly interesting, is not particularly dramatic, these type of characters are not necessarily the stuff of drama, but I see a lot in their lives.
BA: I think you’ve probably heard people tossing around names like Ozu and Bergman, which is pretty flattering for a first-time filmmaker.
PW: It’s wonderful, yeah.
BA: Those filmmakers really do look at middle-class people, everyday people, they’re not looking at extraordinary people at all, and there’s a similarity in that as well as the stylistic similarities.
PW: You know, I’d never seen an Ozu film before, and when the reviews started coming out, I decided to start with a comedy—-I saw “Good Morning,” and I loved it, and I loved how funny it was, how great the actors are. Making a movie is wonderful because you get this great viewing list-—and not even a viewing list, someone compared it to Alice Munro’s short story and I started reading those and they are tremendous. I think she’s pretty much rocketed to the top of my favorite author list.
BA: I wanted to ask you a little bit about the characters and yourself. It’s obviously really important that the characters are a gay couple, but what about being an Asian man, a Chinese American man who is adopted, or fostered, and has a really interesting background. There’s never any overt discussion of his ethnicity.
PW: There isn’t, and one of the very interesting things is when you leave out certain terms, it’s interesting to see how people fill in whatever they want. It’s nice to have that flexibility to fill in. For example, when I wrote it, he’s not Chinese, and yet a lot of people assume he’s Chinese, and so that’s interesting.
BA: His name is not Chinese, obviously, but I guess that’s part of the backstory.
PW: Yeah, but it’s a really interesting combination. I think one of the nice things that happens is that all these things combined kind of jam a lot of signals. For example, though some people may be used to two-dad families, they’ll look up there and they cannot process that face with that voice. So I think when you have that combination of things it helps you start from scratch because it’s so unfamiliar.
I think a lot of times people view places and people as averages, whereas I feel what’s much more realistic are these anomalies from time to time. You know, you’ll be in that town where there’s that one person, and somehow they got there, and they have a story and everybody knows them and they’re okay. I feel like it also helps to provide these situations where you’re not quite sure which aspect of Joey people are responding to, because there’s also a class issue at play, and I think that’s also very realistic, because in life you’re like, “What exactly is this person responding to? Is it how I’m dressed, is it my gender, is it my race?” You just don’t know.
BA: And sexuality.
BA: I think that’s another thing that’s interesting is the way you elide a lot of the obvious things that could have made the film much more dramatic in a conventional way but by avoiding them you don’t ever touch on them—
PW: Well, even things like coming out—-somebody wrote something very interesting about the film. It’s almost like there’s this continual process of coming out that Joey does but it’s not the way we’re used to seeing it or thinking about it—-it’s so small and unspoken. There’s this film called Nighthawks, a British film, that was one of the first to depict a gay life and it’s tremendous. There’s this moment where the character comes out to his friend but it’s in this way where he just uses the correct pronoun to describe a relationship, and they don’t speak about anything and you see her shocked, adjusting, and then deciding to continue the conversation, and it’s so beautiful. I think a lot of scenes in life are like that.
BA: Yeah, and I think that’s why your film is so real because it’s not melodramatic in a conventional sense. The things that happen are melodramatic but the reactions are very real. The audience appreciates that you’re not forcing them to think the way that you want them to think. You talked a little bit about how the audience is the participant in the making of the story.
PW: It really is, and they’re a participant in the emotional flavor. I do the work to set up the situation and, especially early in the film, I’ll pull back at the height of the emotion, and it’s to let the audience complete it, and I think when they do that it becomes a much more personal emotion.
BA: And this was a conscious decision?
PW: Yeah, it makes sense as the shape of things, and I think most movies do the opposite, right, they give you no context, and this emotional burst comes out of nowhere and you can’t understand it.
BA: Right, it’s like you’re observing more than participating. So when you’re making the movie you’re thinking about how this is going to play as people were watching it?
PW: Thinking about it, but mostly just thinking about how it plays with me, how I feel as I’m going through this, and it’s a basic approach that I know a lot of people talk about but if you don’t assume the audience is any better or worse than you—-both are dangerous—-you get really far. Somebody said, “It’s shocking for a movie to assume that I’m a human being, that I’ve actually had some human experiences,” (laughs) “that I’m not a bear, that you don’t have to explain the basics of being human.”
BA: Which I think is nice-—you leave a lot of space for people to fill in the blanks.
PW: And they can, and they like doing it. We do it in life, too.
BA: It’s like a respect for people’s intelligence.
BA: So I guess the standard question is, what’s next? Are you going to keep touring it around for as long as it will play?
PW: This week will tell us a lot and then we’ll have to readjust, if we get to play longer, if more people want to play us, because a lot of other cities, not just theaters in the Bay Area, but theaters in other cities are watching.
BA: How many prints do you have?
PW: Of the 35mm we have twelve prints, and we have DCP now.
BA: That’s a fair amount.
PW: It’s not a constraint, and that’s the thing I wanted. I never wanted the number of prints to be a constraint and it hasn’t been so far. We had a philosophy at the beginning—every time we screen it, we do it a favor, even if two people come, even if it’s in a place you’re not expecting.
BA: So have you had that experience where only two people come?
PW: We’ve had experiences where two people come.
BA: And have they liked it?
PW: Yeah, I think one of the best screenings I was at there were nine people, including myself, and the two owners of the theater. But it felt like I made the movie for those nine people, it was such an active screening, so much laughter, so much warmth in the room. Because you get disappointed, you see empty seats in the room and a part of you is disappointed, but I’m like, “What kind of person have you become when two people don’t matter, or these nine people don’t matter?”
BA: So they all count?
PW: Exactly. If it has an impact on them, and I think it does, you see people coming out of the theater and you see them just cracked open a little bit, you see something in their eyes, you see them just cracked open to something. They’re feeling something a little more fully, they’re processing a lot of things in their own lives and rethinking, revisiting maybe some of the conflicts and family issues in their own life—so it matters. It matters.
UPDATE: In The Family will open Fri. Dec. 14 at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco. Go see it!
In The Family, dir. Patrick Wang
opens Fri. Dec. 7, 2012
Opera Plaza Cinema
601 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco, CA, 94102
San Francisco CA 94102