Posts tagged ‘asian american film’
CAAMfest is just around the corner so I’m posting a few quick recos to help people wade through the massive program. As usual this year the festival is screening more than 100 films, plus music and food events, so finding your bliss can be a daunting process. Here are a few things that I’ve seen that I like. Get your tickets while they’re hot—they’re going fast!
The Tiger Hunter, dir. Lena Khan
A sweet and amusing comedy set in the 1970s about an Indian guy who moves to the US to make his fortune, The Tiger Hunter is a crowd-pleaser that’s set as the CAAMfest opening night movie. Danny Pudi is appealing and genial as the son of the titular tiger hunter and the ensemble cast brings a goofy charm to the rest of the film. Speaking as someone who grew up in that inglorious decade I can also say that the 70s art direction is totally on point.
The Lockpicker, dir. Randall Okita
Randall Okita’s teen angst drama made my best-of list for 2016 and I’m sticking by that decision. Asian American narrative film directors have pretty much mastered the art of mimicking Hollywood movies these days, but The Lockpicker is a different animal altogether. Raw, unstructured, and brutally honest in its examination of some of the worst aspects of adolescence, the film is anchored by a charismatic and emo performance by first-time actor Keigian Umi Tang. As I’ve said before, as a parent of teenagers this movie terrified me in its depiction of the casual cruelty of ennui-stricken youth.
Chee and T, dir. Tanuj Chopra
Tanuj Chopra’s latest flick is a wacky ride through the wilds of Palo Alto with a couple slightly sketchy desi dudes who exist on the fringes of Silicon Valley’s tech wonderland. Funny and frantic, with typical Tanuj Chopra hijinks including hallucinogenic drugs, ethically questionable characters, and surprising individuals who are not what they seem to be.
AKA Seoul, dir. Jon Maxwell
An intriguing look at the experiences of a handful of twentysomething Korean adoptees as they return to Seoul to search for some of the answers to their family histories. Along the way they discover that uncovering the truth may not always be the best way to determine your destiny and that detours don’t necessarily mean derailment on the track tracks of life (wut?).
Basha Man, dir. Daniel Chein
A perceptive look at the conflict between capital and culture, this short documentary profiles a young tour guide and performer in a small village in western China. The film explores the difficulties in maintaining a cultural heritage in a rapidly commodifying world.
Bruce Takes Dragon Town, dir. Emily Chao
Returning to Taiwan during Ghost Month takes on extra significance for a Taiwanese American filmmaker tracing her family’s migrations. This short experimental doc gets bonus points for featuring clips of the obscure Francis Ng film Banana Spirit.
It Is What It Is, dir. Cyrus Tabor
This short experimental documentary uses home movies, archival footage, and a personal narrative that attempts to unlock family secrets across generations and between continents. Dreamy, sad, and perplexing, with a blurry sheen of flawed memories that demonstrates the difficulties in finding the line between truth and fiction.
Death In A Day, dir. Lin Wang
A brief look at a significant moment in a young boy’s life, this sharply observed short narrative, told from the boy’s point of view, is full of subtlety and symbolism.
Before we get too deep into 2017 here’s a baker’s dozen of some of my most memorable cinematic viewing experiences from last year. My only requirement for this list is that the film had to be seen on the big screen, whether in a regular theatrical run or in a film festival. Though I spent a lot of time last year consuming media online and on DVD those viewings don’t count for this list. There is in no particular order except MOONLIGHT is number one.
1. Moonlight: Barry Jenkins’ masterful, virtuoso film has so many strong points that I could (and probably will) write an entire essay about it, but here I’ll just mention one thing. Jenkins knows exactly when to have his characters speak and when to keep them silent, enacting a complex choreography between dialog and subtext that emphasizes the film’s theme of the performativity of gender, identity, and masculinity.
2. The Mermaid: Stephen Chow Sing-Chi returns to slay the Asia box office with this incredibly loopy cinematic manifestation from the inside of his one-of-a-kind brain. In Hong Kong in the 1990s no one made comedies like Stephen Chow and it’s good to see he’s successfully crossed over to the greater Chinese film industry. Chow continues to combine a uniquely twisted worldview, a highly refined cinematic eye, lowbrow humor, a beautiful visual sense, cynicism and romanticism, maniacal wordplay, slapstick, random violence, and gross-out humor in a way that no other filmmaker can match.
3. Train To Busan: Although ostensibly a zombie apocolypse flick, Yeon Sang-Ho’s film is also a melodrama, teen romance, road movie, and critique of capitalism all rolled into one thrilling ride. Gong Yoo anchors the film with his sensitive and vulnerable performance as a man caught up in a madness far beyond his imagining and control
4. Three: Johnnie To’s yearly masterpiece, which dissects the Hong Kong crime film vis a vis the hospital movie. Every shot and every scene is a meta commentary on its genre forerunners.
5. Old Stone: Johnny Ma’s indie film is a scathing attack on the hypocrisy and idiocy of China’s Kafka-esque judicial system as it depicts one man’s attempt to escape a spiraling set of circumstances that threaten to ruin his life.
Viewed at the 2016 San Diego Asian Film Festival
6. The Lockpicker: Randall Okita’s bleak & angsty drama looks at a teenager dealing with loss, alienation, and anomie in snowy Toronto. The film is a very slow burn that pays off in the end. The casual cruelty of high school students rings very true and as a parent of a teen I found this movie to be terrifying. Led by a very strong performance by first-time actor Keigian Umi Tang, despite some confusing narrative moments the film sustains its tone of dread and anxiety throughout. Viewed at the 2016 San Diego Asian Film Festival
7. Anti-Porno: Sion Sono’s playful and sexy pranking of Nikkatsu Studios’ Roman Porno films is made especially meaningful since it was produced by Nikkatsu itself. Viewed at the 2016 San Diego Asian Film Festival
8. Fan: Shah Rukh Khan, the Badshaah of Bollywood himself, leads this twisted, meta examination of stardom and fandom, playing a dual role as both the adored and the adorer in a dysfunctional symbiotic relationship between a movie actor and his biggest fan. SRK is fearless in this film, exposing more warts than many other superstars might be willing to reveal. Director Maneesh Sharma delves into the darker side of fame, with the full support of his willing star.
9. The Magnificent Seven: Antoine Fuqua directs a deeply subversive and radical film disguised as a Hollywood action movie. This joint shows that the subaltern can speak as well as shoot a gun. Bonus points for looking at alternate expressions of masculinity, male bonding, and homosocial love.
10. United Red Army (The Young Man Was, Part 1): Naeem Mohaiemen’s experimental documentary deconstructs the audio recordings of the conversations between members of Japan’s militant revolutionary Red Army and Bangladeshi government negotiators after the group landed a hijacked plane at Dhaka in 1977, adding in Mohaiemen’s own wry recollections of the event that he witnessed as a child via television broadcasts. Viewed at the 2016 Third Eye South Asian Film Festival in San Francisco.
11. Mele Murals: In this documentary about Native Hawai’ian mural artists Tadashi Nakamura creates a thoughtful rumination on giving up selfhood in order to serve community, art, and culture. Viewed at the 2016 CAAMfest in San Francisco
12. At Café 6: In yet another highly satisfying entry in Taiwan’s teen melodrama genre, director Neal Wu draws out excellent performances from his young cast. Though it doesn’t stray far from its genre conventions it hits all the right notes with subtlety and emotion, effectively looking at friendship, fate, love, and loss. After spending way too much time looking at the surgically enhanced beauty of so many K-drama stars it’s nice to see Cherry Ngan’s snaggle-toothed smile and Dong Zijian’s imperfect boy-next-door charms.
13. The Wailing: Na Hong-Jin’s creepy thriller had me off-balance throughout its running time, with its constantly changing POV and its refusal to adhere to genre conventions. Also in the mix is a strutting, scene-stealing performance from the ever-awesome Hwang Jung Min as a badass shaman, some incredibly disturbing man/dog violence, and boils and pustules galore. I was shuddering for days after seeing this one.
NOTE: An earlier version of this list appeared on sensesofcinema.com
Andrew Ahn’s Spa Night, which looks at the struggles of a young Korean American man in Los Angeles coming to grips with his queerness, at first may seem like a throwback to pre-Stonewall “gay=guilt” cinematic tropes. But rather than a retrograde portrayal it instead represents a step forward in queer filmic representations, recognizing the significance of intersectional identities found in LGBTQ people of color.
Spa Night is a thoughtful and nuanced movie that goes beyond a lot of queer cinema’s current trend toward hot makeout sessions interspersed with romantic melodrama. Back in the day when New Queer Cinema took off back in the 1990s with movies like Go Fish (dir. Rose Troche 1994), The Hours and Times (dir. Christopher Münch, 1991), and Poison (Todd Haynes, 1991), among many others, it was important to show queer sex onscreen since it had been silenced and suppressed for so long. At that time just the act of boy-on-boy and girl-on-girl kissing signaled a radical moment. But now it’s almost become a cliché—I wrote a couple years ago about how every film I saw at Frameline Festival included the obligatory buffed dudes/cute chicks in tank tops stripping off and faking same-sex sex. Even mainstream television has queer couples tongue-locking all the time, so although homophobia remains rampant in US culture at large, it’s not as rare as it was back in the nineties to see LGBT coupling onscreen.
So in some ways Spa Night may seem relatively tame in relation to mainstream queer cinema (and it’s great that there is a such a thing, btw). Instead of a standard coming-out story where boy or girl announces his or her queerness to the world and such announcement is revelatory and life-affirming, Spa Night presents a much more layered and densely observed look at a young Korean American man’s gradual recognition of his sexuality. The film’s realization of the main character’s mixed feelings, confusion, and shame may seem like a reversion to the old days when any gay character was a tragic homosexual destined for unhappiness and grief. But Spa Night acknowledges that coming to terms with one’s sexual orientation is not the end of confusion but often just the first step to self-realization.
The film depicts the complexities of a gay man coming to terms with his sexuality within a traditional Korean immigrant family. Set mostly in a bathhouse in Los Angeles’s Koreatown the film is not without several steamy suggestions of gay longing and desire, but for the most part the action is implied rather than explicit. David, the main character played by Joe Seo, grapples with maintaining a balance between his family obligations and the burgeoning realization of his sexual desires. Presented without judgment or blame, the film instead simply delineates David’s attempts to fulfill his family duties and his parents’ wishes for him to marry and carry on the family name while gradually recognizing his own sexual identity. The film recognizes David’s struggle to reconcile these sometimes oppositional forces. It also acknowledges that the simple pre- and post-coming out binary may not work within the bounds of a non-Western cultural context, as David’s filial piety, family responsibilities, cultural expectations, and other culturally specific concerns come into play.
Although it may not seem as edgy as its predecessors in New Queer Cinema in fact Spa Night is a step forward for the genre. The film recognizes the very different tensions that queer Asian Americans may face as they balance a multiplicity of identities, histories, and expectations.
It’s March so that must mean it’s time for CAAMfest, San Francisco’s annual Asian American film festival. As with past iterations, the ten-day fest includes a generous helping of documentaries, narratives, shorts, and animation from Asian and Asian American and diasporic directors.
Notable this year is the strong slate of Asian American documentaries, including the Opening Night film Tyrus, directed by Pam Tom (Two Lies), which looks at Chinese American animator Tyrus Wong, the man behind Disney’s Bambi, among other iconic characters. Also of note are Breathin’: The Eddy Zheng Story (dir. Ben Wang), which follows the life of the titular Chinese American poet and prison activist; Daze of Justice, (dir. Mike Siv) which looks at the trial of Khmer Rouge war criminals in Cambodia, and Ninth Floor (dir. Mina Shum), an examination of the historic 1969 occupation of Sir George Williams University in Montreal by Jamaican student activists.
Another doc of note is Tadashi Nakamura’s latest, Mele Murals. Nakamura (Jake Shimabukuro: Life On Four Strong; A Song For Ourselves) has again produced a winner in this beautiful and moving story about two Hawai’ian artists who gradually learn about themselves, their art, and their culture. Commissioned to lead the creation of a large-scale mural on the walls of a public school in Waimea, graffiti artists Estria Miyashiro and John “Prime” Hina gradually immerse themselves in Waimea’s history, culture, and community through their involvement with the mural project. As the project progresses Prime discovers a heretofore unexpressed connection with his Hawai’ian heritage, while Estria learns to overcome his ego and his need to be “the artist.” Featuring some beautiful digital cinematography, Nakamura’s film includes a remarkable sensitivity to and empathy with his subjects. Prime talks about growing up shuttling between his divorced parents and the resultant disconnect with his history and culture, and Estria develops an understanding of the importance of respecting the wishes of the group over individual needs and desires. Director Nakamura understands how human beings interact with place and the land and he often frames his shots with a lot of sky and horizon, placing the people as part of the landscape and not just centering the human experience. The final scene is powerful and moving and all I can say is MIC DROP.
Another fun film is Tanuj Chopra’s Grass, a narrative about a day in the life of two weedheads as they smoke a huge amount of cannabis and hang out in a park in Los Angeles. The plot, such as it is, follows Cam and her buddy Jinky as they contemplate a backpack full of buds that Cam’s boyfriend Austin has given them to deliver to a third party. Cam and Jinky can’t help sampling a bit of the goods and one thing leads to another as they gradually imbibe more and more of Austin’s weed. Mostly comprised of the absurdist running commentary by the increasingly lit protagonists, the film features spot-on dialog that effectively simulates the sensation of smoking many joints over a short period of time. Emily C. Chang and Pia Shah are hilarious as the stoned protagonists as they gradually become higher and more paranoid throughout the day. Chopra breaks up the two gals’ crazy rambling and obsessive discussions about pizza with a synthy score, hallucinatory bumpers featuring food porn and blooming time-lapse plants, and a few well-placed digital effects to heighten the generally baked proceedings.
For those looking for films on the Asian tip, Taiwanese director Sunny Yu’s narrative The Kids is a poignant and effective drama about two teens facing adversity as they try to make their way in an adult world. Set in working-class Taipei, the film includes heartfelt and unaffected performances by the two young leads. The actors portray adolescent parents of an infant daughter who are slowly being crushed by the weight of grownup responsibilities. And for those looking for a more commercial Asian cinematic experience, CAAMfest is showing the South Korean historical The Royal Tailor, which stars the hot and charming Ko Soo as Lee Gong-jin, a rakish fashion designer who turns the Joseon court upside-down and who becomes romantically entangled with the young queen (played by ingénue Park Shin-Hye, star of hit K-dramas The Heirs, You’re Beautiful, and Pinocchio).
This is only the tip of the iceberg of CAAMfest’s bounteous programming slate, which also includes music shows, panels, and food events. Tickets are selling fast so go here to get yours before they’re gone.
CAAMfest, everyone’s favorite San Francisco-based Asian American arts festival, starts up this week and as usual it’s stuffed with films from Asian and Asian American directors, musical happenings, and food events. The festival spotlights veteran documentary filmmaker Arthur Dong, including a premiere of his new feature-length documentary The Killing Fields of Dr. Haing S. Ngor, which is about the Cambodian doctor perhaps best known for his Oscar-winning turn in The Killing Fields in 1984 and whose mysterious murder tragically ended his life some years later. Former CAAMfest/San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival director Chi-Hui Yang curates a program of shorts, Playtime, that includes Trails, Cyrus Tabar’s hallucinogenic microportrait of Tokyo, as well as a revival of the rarity Snipers In The Trees (1985), an early experimental short by Curtis Choy (The Fall of the I-Hotel). Below are a few other highlights of the upcoming cinematic onslaught.
Dot 2 Dot
Amos Why’s debut feature is the real deal, an intriguing look at Hong Kong’s past and present that uses the city’s unique history and geography as a backdrop for a thoughtful commentary on the transience of culture, place, and identity. The film follows Chung, a Chinese Canadian expat returning to HK who leaves dot-to-dot puzzles inscribed on the walls of the stations of the MTR, Hong Kong’s ubiquitous subway system. A recent mainland China emigre (Meng Ting-yi) begins to decipher Chung’s cryptograms and the two begin a virtual courtship, linked by Chung’s mysterious symbology. Director Why captures a street-level view of contemporary Hong Kong that’s filled with ordinary people who represent the multifaceted denizens of the city in the 21st century. The movie includes lots of non-touristy Hong Kong locations and has a great feel for the everyday sights and rhythms of the city. Hong Kong movie fans can also spot Susan Shaw as a language-school headmistress, and Tze-chung Lam, aka the chubby guy from Stephen Chow’s Shaolin Soccer, as a teacher, as well as TVB star Moses Chan (hiding his celebrity good-looks behind black-framed eyeglasses) as Chung. Though it fondly recalls the Hong Kong of the past, the movie isn’t overly sentimental or nostalgic. It’s a nice look at what’s vanished in Hong Kong over the past few decades and the rapidly accelerating changes in the city.
This US/Vietnam co-production is a slick and creepy horror movie by Ham Tran, the director of Journey From the Fall (2006), which looked at the experiences of Vietnamese immigrants in the US, as well as last year’s glam-slam How To Fight in Six-Inch Heels. Hollow is a quite a departure from Tran’s debut film and demonstrates both the uptick in genre films directed by Asian Americans in the past few years as well as the trend toward US/Asia co-productions. The story centers on Chi, whose younger half-sister Ai apparently drowns in a nearby river, causing Chi much guilt and anguish. But when Ai later turns up a few kilometers down the river seemingly alive and well, things take a turn for the supernatural as the young girl develops a greenish pallor, scratches at mysterious wounds, and otherwise exhibits signs of demonic possession. The movie does an good job blending Viet ghost stories with modern-day horror film tropes and for the most part keeps the source of the mysterious child-possession hidden until the end. I would like to have seen a bit more agency on the part of Chi’s character but the film draws interesting parallels between sex traffickers and malevolent spirits, trying together past and present evils in Viet society. The movie is nicely shot, although the soundtrack relies a bit too heavily on sudden loud and jarring violin sounds to emphasize the scary bits in the story, but there are some nice visceral touches—it’s always rewarding to see pimps and child abductors vomiting gallons of river water.
Nuoc 2030 is another US/Viet genre film coproduction, this one a science-fictional look at Vietnam in 2030, which is by then mostly flooded by global warming. The film’s title plays on the dual translation of “nuoc,” which means both “water” and “country” in Vietnamese. Despite a modest budget, director Nghiem-Minh Nguyen-Vo does an excellent job of world-building with his imaginative use of existing locations and evocative imagery to suggest a drowned world. The poetic narrative centers on Sao, a fisherman’s widow searching for clues to her husband’s murder in a watery Vietnam of the not-too-distant mid-21st century. For the most part the film delicately renders its futuristic storyline with imagination and vision, mixing in environmentalism, genetic engineering, and a fatalistic romance.
Jessey Tsang Tsui-Shan’s outstanding documentary looks Ho Chung village, a small settlement in Hong Kong’s New Territories, an area which is currently undergoing a construction boom due to its location near the Hong Kong/China border. Due to the harshness of farming in the region many NT residents immigrate to Europe to find work, including the two generations of the Lau Family featured in Tsang’s film. Tsuan shot much of the film during the village’s ten-year festival that occurs every decade, using that event as a means of examining the ongoing village diaspora and its effects on the residents. The Laus dispersed primarily to France and the UK and the film also includes footage of their lives overseas, with the resulting French/English-speaking children, intermarriages, and mixed-heritage offspring. Only the family’s world-weary matriarch remains in the village, where she bitterly reminisces about the poverty and hardship of farm life and her still-raging anger at her late husband, who emigrated to the UK decades before and who was only able to return a handful of times to visit his wife and children. The film is an excellent testament to the effects of globalization and the costs of modernization on ordinary people but it’s by no means downbeat or depressing, as it also celebrates the endurance of and connections to the villagers’ cultural roots as they return every decade to celebrate the festival.
My Voice, My Life
Oscar-winner (and former San Franciscan) Ruby Lam’s latest film follows several at-risk Hong Kong high school students as they prepare for a large-scale musical production. This verite-style doc celebrates the struggles and accomplishments of those who have been left out of Hong Kong’s fast-lane, including students from a school for the blind, recent mainland China immigrants, and those whose academics keep them from top-ranked educations. Part Fame, part Frederick Wiseman’s High School, the movie subtly reveals a lot about the social strata of contemporary Hong Kong and its constantly changing cultural milieu.
March 12-22, 2015
San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley
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
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.