What Goes On: Taiwan Film Days and Third I South Asian Film Festival
Besides Krrish 3, Hrithik Roshan’s latest superhero blockbuster opening today, there’s more joy for Asian film fans in the Bay upcoming over the next couple weeks. Taiwan Film Days at the San Francisco Film Society opens this weekend (Nov. 1-4) and the Third I South Asian Film Festival starts up next Wednesday, Nov. 6. Both are great chances to catch Asian movies on the big screen that may not pass this way again.
Taiwan Film Days is the fifth installation of the SFFS’s weekend-long focus on movies from the island nation that’s got one of the hottest national cinemas around these days. In the past five years or so the ROC has been exporting blockbusters such as Cape No. 7, Seediq Bale, and You Are The Apple of My Eye, and this year’s SFFS series reflects Taiwan’s growing commercial film industry.
Apolitical Romance (dir. Hsieh Chun-Yi, 2013) is a cute romcom with a twist. With its adherence to genre conventions, including opposites-attract lead characters and a wacky supporting cast including deaf old men, tattooed gangsters, and charming seniors, the film could be Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan all over again except for the film’s ongoing banter about Chiang Kai-Shek and the PRC liberating Taiwan. The movie focuses on a geeky Taiwanese man (Bryan Chang Shu-hao, here toning down his idolness) paired with a street-smart mainland chick (Huang Lu with a definitive Beijinger accent) who meet cute at a dumpling stand and pair up to help each other with their respective life dilemmas—he needs to rewrite a manual about PRC culture for his job, she’s searching for her grandmother’s old flame who has been out of contact since before the 1949 Chinese revolution. In true sassy-girl fashion she’s bossy and brusque and he’s mousy and passive and the story centers around their personality clashes as they trek around town, which gives the film an excuse to visit lots of nice Taipei scenery. Bright, shiny, and formulaic, the movie gets a lot of mileage from compare-and-contrast cultural references including the differences between putonghua and Taiwanese and the KMT and the CCP, but the ultimate focus of the film isn’t straight-up politics. In fact, the mild and fleeting references to fraught history between the PRC and Taiwan, as well as to Taiwan’s history of internecine political turmoil which resulted in thousands of people imprisoned, tortured, and dead, may rub some people the wrong way, but maybe making jokes about it is a coping mechanism to deal with the ongoing cross-straits conflict. Or maybe the whole plot is a clever metaphor for the disruptions of the lives of the millions of displaced Chinese and Taiwanese affected by war and exile.
Soul, (dir. Chung Mong-hong, 2013) is Taiwan’s foray into the creepy psychological thriller sweepstakes. A young man (good-looking Joseph Chang from GF:BF) collapses at his job and during his recovery at his father’s remote hillside farm he begins to exhibit disassociative personality traits including murdering people.. The movie follows a strange course of events that are linked to the son’s possible supernatural possession. The deadpan father (Jimmy Wang Yu, the one-armed boxer of yore) also acts in an equally inexplicable behavior, covering up and abetting his son’s crimes. The film attempts to shock and disturb the viewer but its placid and only intermittently violent narrative, intercut with artsy shots of suffering fish and insects and filled with long, obtuse, expository monologues and languid and deliberate pacing and editing, lacks any real visceral punch. The movie has some lovely cinematography and the film is Taiwan’s official entry for the foreign-language Oscar, so it’s got a high-gloss sheen to it, but ultimately it’s filled with a lot of pretty images that don’t overly advance the plot. Joseph Chang is unreadable as the possessed son while Jimmy Wang Yu as the expressionless dad manages some level of menace in his opaque performance. Although the movie hints at an uncanny movitivation for the course of events, there’s no real explanation for why the father and son behave the way that they do unless, in the best tradition of hillbilly slasher movies, they’re just psychopaths.
The Third I South Asian Film Festival includes a whole slew of the latest independent films from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and the diaspora. Celluloid Man, (dir. Shivendra Singh Dungarpur, India, 2012) is an exhaustive profile of PK Nair, Indian film preservationist par excellence and the person who saved much of that country’s film heritage by founding the National Film Archive of India. The film contains some great footage of rare and classic Indian films, while recounting Nair’s deep and personal involvement (apparently to the detriment of his family life) with film preservation on the subcontinent. Some of the most stunning footage isn’t from classic Indian movies, though, but of film emulsion being stripped from its celluloid backing in order to salvage the silver from the silver nitrate, a practice that lead to hundreds of prints of historically significant Indian films such as Alam Ara, India’s first talkie, being lost forever. The film in many ways is a lament for the lost legacy of Indian cinema, despite Nair’s best efforts to preserve it.
In following Nair’s life story the documentary also traces the significance of the film archive and how it brought world cinema to both film scholars and to the masses. In one great clip a pair of farmers in a South Indian village profess their admiration for Kurosawa and De Sica, a direct result of Nair’s efforts to introduce classic films to everyday Indians. The film looks gorgeous, as it was shot by an ensemble of eleven different cinematographers that includes some of India’s most reknowned DPs, all of whom wanted to participate in documenting Nair’s contributions to Indian film history.
Closing out the festival is Ship of Theseus (dir. Negin Singh, India, 2013) an intriguing film that intertwines three stories of the results a transplant (cornea, liver, kidney) from the same deceased donor and the implications of each transplant. The film examines the moral, ethical, spiritual, and economic repercussions of modern medical advances, looking at animal testing, karma, creativity, and the question of who has the privilege of purchasing life over death. The title refers to Theseus’ Paradox, first posited in the 1st century by Plutarch, in which all of the planks comprising the deck of the ship of the Greek hero Theseus were eventually replaced by new timber. Is the ship then the same ship? Hobbes then expanded the question to ask, if those same timbers were used to build another ship, which ship then was the ship of Theseus? The film updates the paradox to contemporary times by looking at the effect of organ transplants and the effects of these and other modern medical advances.
In the first segment of the film, a reknowned blind photographer receives a new set of corneas and begins to lose her creative edge. The second segment follows a monk and animal-rights activist with cirrosis of the liver who must decide whether or not to have a liver transplant, which is contrary to his ethical beliefs. The final segment involves a young stockbroker who stumbles on an organ-theft ring and who then attempts to rectify the effects of this criminal activity.
Ship of Theseus includes gorgeous cinematography, excellent performances, and a thought-provoking story structure. It’s a fascinating and unique examination of the results of the breakneck pace of scientific advances intersecting with age-old dilemmas of human existence.
Nov 6-10, New People Cinema, San Francisco; Nov 16. Aquarius Theater, Palo Alto