The Pleasure Principle: San Diego Asian Film Festival
I’m suffering from severe film festival withdrawal right now after a whirlwind weekend at the San Diego Asian Film Festival, where I screened my latest short experimental documentary, The Chinese Gardens. SDAFF is a great festival, with a massive schwag bag, karaoke and lots of free food and drink in the guest lounge, and a jam-packed schedule full of outstanding film product. I flew in Saturday morning and returned Monday and in about 36 hours I saw more films than I usually see in a week, all on the big screen. Not only is SDAFF one of the biggest Asian American film fests, showcasing the newest and best Asian American movies, it also features a slew of outstanding Asian films as well. In my brief visit I saw docs, narratives, experimental films, shorts, features, horror, extreme, sci-fi, romcoms and more. Herewith are some of the highlights.
Tad Nakamura’s Jake Shimabukuro: Life on Four Strings follows the life and career of the ukelele wiz and the hour-long film is nice way for the director to stretch out a bit and work on a longer-form piece after three fine short documentaries, Yellow Brotherhood, Pilgrimmage, and the outstanding Chris Iijma bio, A Song For Ourselves. It’s all about relationships with Tad’s movies, which is why, even though I’m pretty much a heartless beyotch, they always make me cry. As with Nakamura’s previous shorts, the latest film possesses some really touching moments such as Shimabukuro’s mom talking about raising two kids as a single mom, and Shimabukuro’s manager seeing her hometown of Sendai hard hit by the Japanese tsunami. Shimabukuro’s a charismatic performer and his easy magnetism translates well to the screen. It’s quite something to see him grow from a gawky teenager to a seasoned performer holding his own at the LA Philharmonic. Nakamura’s editing skilz and his ability to capture emotion on screen, as well as the imaginative AfterEffects graphics work by Michael Velazquez, make the film more than a standard biopic. Nakamura also has a fine sense of place and community, as evidenced in his earlier short docs, and in the new pic Tad locates Shimabukuro firmly in his native Hawai’i, showing Shimabukuro’s respect and understanding for his instrument and its significance in Hawai’ian culture.
Due to various scheduling conflicts I was only was able to catch the middle hour of Sion Sono’s Land of Hope and I was very sorry I couldn’t see the whole thing. Following last year’s Himizu, this is Sono’s second movie set in Japan’s tsunami zone. The story involves several characters as they search for missing family members and deal with fears of radiation downwind from the fictional town of Nakashima (a mashup of Nagasaki and Hiroshima that stands in for real-life Fukashima). More low-key than some of Sono’s earlier horrorist fare like Exte (Hair Extensions) or his magnum opus, Love Exposure, Land of Hope ruthlessly mocks the Japanese government’s inadequate response to the tsunami and reactor meltdown while emphasizing the human cost of those disasters. The film was just starting to get extremely strange with a pregnant woman wandering the streets in a hazmat suit when I had to move on to the next screening, Painted Skin: The Resurrection.
The highest-grossing Chinese-language film in the PRC to date, PS:TR is a chick flick/costume drama/war epic/fantasy film. Director Wuershan manages to dial back the DFX extremes he displayed in The Butcher, the Chef, and the Swordsman (which I quite liked, btw) and focuses instead on various interpersonal relationships including not one but two exogamous human/demon romances. The three-way affair between Zhou Xun, Vicki Zhao Wei, and Aloys Chen Kun must rank up there with Maggie Cheung/Brigitte Lin/Tony Leung Ka-Fei in Dragon Gate Inn as one of the most gorgeous love triangles ever captured on celluloid. An elaborate costume fantasy, PS:TR is a lot of fun, with Zhou, Zhao, and Chen playing it straight as the variously star-crossed lovers, and Mini Yang and William Feng providing comic relief. As per usual Aloys Chen is a fine piece of eye candy but here he lacks the range and charm he showed in Flying Swords of Dragon Gate. Vicki Zhao Wei does well as a long-suffering and unrequited scarred princess, and Zhou Xun as a fox demon manages to simultaneously convey longing, avariciousness, lust, and cunning while at the same time making her character strangely sympathetic. Mini Yang is cute and charming as a spritely bird demon, the first role I’ve seen her in where she was more than a flower vase, and William Feng as her comic foil is equally deft in his role.
Debbie Lum’s documentary Seeking Asian Female looks at the phenomenon of yellow fever, or white guys with a thing for Asian women. Although it takes a little while to get over the ickiness of Steven, the self-deluded main character who’s an Asiaphile with a particular obsession for Chinese women, I think Lum did the right thing in focusing on this guy. Steven is a not particularly good-looking, 60-something, twice-divorced, childlike dreamer living in a small walk-up apartment in Burlingame and making a modest living working at the SFO parking lot. Yet despite his lack of physical attractiveness, money, social status, or property he’s still apparently enough of a catch to draw several young Chinese women into online associations with him. The film makes a cogent statement about the power imbalance inherent in such relationships as even a lowly parking lot attendant in the U.S. can be desirable enough to attract women in developing countries like China.
Once Steven’s prospective bride Sandy arrives from China things start to get interesting, as she has reasons of her own for wanting this marriage of convenience. Lum lightly touches on the plight of “leftover women” in China, those females who haven’t yet married by age 30, but where the film is best is when it explores the subtle power dynamic between a white first-world man and a woman from rural China. The film avoids preachiness or polemics yet its point is pretty clear—at one point Lum asks the clueless Steven just what Sandy is gaining from their relationship and he’s completely stumped. It’s possibly the closest he comes to realizing the vast power imbalance in their relationship and understanding the great advantage he has over his captive bride-to-be.
Yet despite its hot-button subject matter, Lum’s film never overtly judges the motivations of her two characters, although there are many opportunities to do so, and the film thus allows viewers to come to their own conclusions about the situation. For the most part the film also avoids easy romanticism and is fairly clear-eyed about the motivations of its main characters, contrasting Steven’s continued avowances of adoration for his newly met fiancée with Sandy’s much more practical view of the situation. My only quibble is with the very end of the film, where the story succumbs to sentiment and falls back on romantic love as the resolution to its narrative. After the film has successfully dismantled the Western idealization of romance it’s a bit of a letdown to have such a conventional conclusion to the story. But the rest of the film is so sly and watchable and possesses such a sharp and intelligent social and political critique that I’m willing to overlook this lapse.
I concluded my rapidfire film festival junket with a couple super-low budget digital features. Fresh young Korean director Oh Young-doo’s Young Gun In The Time is clever and inventive, with a great lead performance by Kim Young Geon as the titular character, a goofy young gumshoe with a cyborg hand who has a penchant for Hawai’ian shirts. The plot involves some kind of convoluted time travel, along with a murder mystery, a love story, and several excellent fight scenes, plus a sexpot boss and many ponytailed thugs including one whose weapon of choice is a retractable metal tape measure. Of course the time travel paradoxes make absolutely no sense but it’s fun to see where Oh goes with his conceit, and despite its miniscule US$30,000 budget the movie’s got a ton of zany digital effects, split screens, and other filmic tomfoolery that keeps everything moving along at an entertaining clip.
Japanese director Ohata Hajime’s Henge is another example of making the most from limited resources. Also shot on digital video, the film is follows a young couple whose marriage is hard-pressed when the husband starts to metamorphosize into a manical. bloodthirsty beast intent on mayhem. A nutty gojira/love story/werewolf tale that ends up with a guy in a rubber suit terrorizing Japan, the film overcomes its modest means and runs on sheer primal energy, led by a muscular, demented performance by Kazunari Aizawa as the man/beast. Henge questions whether true love knows no bounds, even when your spouse may be a throat-ripping, flesh-eating monster.
The 2012 San Diego Asian Film Festival continues through Nov. 9, so even though I’ve left the building there are many more cinematic delights still to be had. Check out the full schedule here.
Entry filed under: asian american film, documentary, movies, san diego asian film festival. Tags: aloys chen kun, henge, jake shimabukuro, painted skin: the resurrection, san diego asian film festival; sion sono; movies;, vicki zhao wei, young gun in the time, zhou xun.