The Dark of the Matinee: CAAMfest 2014
Everyone’s favorite local festival starts this week with a slew of film screenings, food parties, and musical events. The fest includes treats such as the world premiere of the legendary Rea Tajiri’s newest experimental doc, Lordville, as well as Golden Gate Girls, Louisa Wei’s feature length study of Chinese American film director Esther Eng, who worked in the Hong Kong film industry in the 1930s, and The Missing Picture, Rithy Panh’s Oscar-nominated personal doc that’s a harrowing look at the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror, told with intricately designed miniature tableaux populated by rough-hewn clay dolls.
Though by no means exhaustive, herewith is a small selection of some of the festival’s other highlights.
This family drama out of Singapore has been racking up a bunch of awards including the Camera d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and Best Film at the Golden Horse awards. The plot concerns a middle-class Singaporean couple with a rambunctious 11-year-old son who hire a live-in Filipino housekeeper. Shot in Ann Hui-styled realism, the film shows the struggle of ordinary people caught in the global economic crisis. None of the characters in the film are exempt from the human cost of corporatization, as the OWF maid has a young son back in the Philippines and must moonlight as a hairdresser to make ends meet, while her Singaporean employers hold a series of oppressive, soul-crushing office jobs. Everyone is ground up by the relentless gears of global capitalism—will their humanity remain intact?
A Picture of You
JP Chan’s debut feature (he’s directed a bunch of short films) is a sharply drawn slice of life about a brother and sister, Kyle and Jen, who return to their late mom’s house in the Pennsylvania countryside to pack it up after her passing. Despite the potentially maudlin subject matter, director Chan infuses the film with levity—the tense and familiar bickering between the siblings rings pretty true as once in their mom’s house the two revert to old patterns of behavior. As they’re packing up they find out a bit more about their mom than they might want to know, which leads to more tension and bickering. Chan draws out amusing performances from his cast, lead by Andrew Pang as the sardonic brother and Jo Mei as the discombobulated sister. Also good are Lucas Dixon as Jen’s dorky white guy boyfriend, and Teyonah Parris from Mad Men who plays Jen’s BFF with endearing geekiness. The movie is a bit like a Wes Anderson film (without the twee and annoying stylistic tics) in the way that it delves into the quirkiness of interpersonal familial relationships without sentiment or melodrama.
In yet another Singaporean narrative, two lonely kids befriend each other at their strict middle school. Syafiqah’s absent parents have left her with her indifferent grandmother. Huat lives with his strict father and his mentally handicapped younger sister. The two become friends despite Syafiqah being the good girl and Huat the outcast who’s bullied by the other kids. The scenes where the two kids play joyfully in an aquaduct on the edge of the town contrast beautifully with the rigid, doctrinaire atmosphere of the schoolroom, where corporal punishment is routine and the students dutifully recite facts and numbers without analysis or critical thinking. Huat is imaginative and creative and so doomed to fail in this educational and social system. The adults are either cruel,abusive, or absent and the only affection and tenderness the two children find are with each other. Writer-director Wong Chen Hsi, who grew up in Singapore but who went to USC film school, draws out quite wonderful performances from her two young leads who effectively convey the stubbornness, rebellion, and confusion of their pre-adolescent characters. The film sports some impressive wide-screen cinematography and has a subtle and effective sound design, with the sound of Singapore’s relentless equatorial rain becoming a metaphor for the muffling of dissent in the school and in society. The film is a poignant and moving indictment of the stifling of difference within the modern Singaporean social system.
Lisette Marie Flanary’s documentary Na Kamalei: Men of Hula was a huge hit on the Asian American film festival circuit a few years back, so it’s no wonder someone else has decided to further mine the trials and tribulations of male hula dancers. The Haumana follows Johnny Kealoha (competently played by Tui Asau), a cheesy, alcoholic Waikiki lounge singer who’s bastardized his native Hawai’ian heritage for the aim of fleecing tourists. Yet despite Johnny’s apparent lack of hula street cred, on her deathbed Johnny’s mentor recruits him to tutor a group of high school male hula dancers for the big show. The movie follows Johnny as he strives to whip his motley crew of hula dancers into dancing trim while rediscovering his cultural roots. A feel-good, let’s-put-on-a-show hula movie with lots of pretty boys and nice scenery, The Haumana touches briefly on some of the social issues facing Hawaii but it’s not a particularly dark or gritty movie and it never really strays far from afterschool-special territory. Of note is Kelly Hu in a small role as a barkeep–for some reason she looks absolutely dreadful. She’s badly lit and sports unflattering chola eyebrows and a frizzy frightwig blow-out. But Tui Asau in the lead role is cute and dimply, and the young dude hula dancers, each with their own representative backstory, are about as sexy and cut as you can get. What more could you ask for?
American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs
A good, solid portrait of long-time Detroit civil rights activist Grace Lee Boggs, this documentary traces Boggs’ journey from a middle-class daughter of a Chinese American restaurateur to her 1960s activism in the Black Power movement and through the present day. Now in her late nineties, Boggs is as cogent and cognizant as ever and speaks eloquently about her involvement with the struggle for self-determination in Detroit’s African American community and beyond. Although the pace of the film lags a bit after a dynamite first half, the film captures the thoughtful intellectualism that has driven Boggs’ work for nearly seventy years, and director Grace Lee (no relation, ha) effectively blends personal narrative, historical documentation, and Boggs’ own thoughtful ruminations in an engrossing and informative package.
The highest grossing Thai film of all time and a big hit across several Asian territories, Pee Mak is a comedic remaking of a classic Thai ghost story in which a beautiful apparition romances her besotted, living husband. Here the fable is played for laughs, and the film owes a lot to Stephen Chow movies, 90s Hong Kong ghost story films, and the Three Stooges as it utilizes physical shtick and nonsense situations for its laffs. The movie follows four hapless idiots who determine that their friend’s beautiful wife may be a more than she seems. Hilarity ensues, but the broad slapstick lacks Chow’s ingenious blend of crude physical shtick, perfect comedic timing, rapid-fire wordplay, and cinematic finesse. While classic Hong Kong ghost stories certainly were often full of idiotic slapstick and mo lei tau nonsense they also had imaginative cinematography, creative art direction, and the divine action choreography of masters like Ching Siu Tung, not to mention the well-honed comedic chops of actors like the late great Wu Ma to support their pratfalls. Pee Mak’s cast mostly mugs and screeches its way through the exposition, supported by wacky haircuts and toothblack. I wanted to love this movie but after about 30 minutes I wearied of the clueless, somewhat repetitious antics of the various characters.
March 13-23, 2014
San Francisco, Berkeley, Oakland