Tuesday, March 20, 2007

The Beautiful Ones: 2007 SF Asian-American Film Festival (Part 4)

It's Only Talk (2005, Dir. Ryuichi Hiroki)

"There is no trace of chic in Kamata."
-- Shinobu Terashima

One of my favorite films from the 2005 SF International Film Festival was Vibrator (2003) by Ryuichi Hiroki. His only previous claim to fame was as a director of "pink" movies, and the scenario of Vibrator has a whiff of that genre (lonely woman spends a few days on the road with a hot young truck driver, indulging in plenty of sex), but the film turned that genre (and the genre of the road movie) inside out: the young woman wasn't a vacuous sex object but a psychically damaged, flesh-and-blood creature, fully aware that her antics were merely a brief respite from her troubled life. Unhurried and humane, Vibrator can be seen as the descendant of the films of Mikio Naruse, in which women are front, center, unadorned, empathetic, luminous.

Lo and behold, it's 2007, and Hiroki's It's Only Talk is one of my favorite films from this year's festival. A gentler film than Vibrator, it nevertheless continues down the same road, and it's an even stronger effort. Hiroki's movies aren't plot-driven -- a lot happens, and people change, but he's not one for the standard A-to-B curve of a drama. He prefers to follow the rhythms of his female protagonists -- in this case, Yuko (Shinobu Terashima, who also starred in Vibrator), a woman very much on the fringe of Japanese society. In her mid-thirties, struggling with manic depression, unable to hold a job or anything resembling stability, she decides to move to Kamata, a dull little town outside Tokyo, a place where there is "no trace of chic." Like town, like resident -- while both appear to be flat, underneath their placid exteriors is oodles of quirkiness. Soon Yuko is building a website extolling the town's virtues: a playground made completely of tires (including a towering tire Godzilla), a house bursting with moss on its walls, a ferris wheel that leads to a surprising panoramic view. She whiles away her days with similarly offbeat men: Honmu, an old college classmate who's now a local politician with problems "getting it up"; Noboru, a manic-depressive yakuza member who longs for the days of his youth; Mr. K, a kindly old man who pleasures her with a vibrator in public places.

At first Yuko seems perfectly self-possessed, content to hang out with her odd buddies and shrug off their advances, but then the order of things is upset when her flashy country cousin Shoichi (Etsushi Toyokawa) reenters the picture. An old high school flame (she lost her virginity to him), he's a bit gauche in his Hawaiian shirts and vintage convertible, and for the past six years, he's languished within a loveless marriage. We soon learn that in those six years, Yuko was hospitalized for her illness, and has never quite recovered. She's still given to embellishing on the truth of her background; she claims her boyfriend died in the Tokyo gas attacks, that her parents died in an earthquake. When Shoichi walks out on his wife and crashes at Yuko's place, the stage is set for some bonding and soul-searching.

Aha, you think; these two will heal each other, and this will lead to a sweet, moving conclusion -- maybe they'll even get together. Well, yes and no. Hiroki isn't interested in the easy way out -- he prefers the journey to the destination. As Yuko and Shoichi grow closer (there are some outstanding vignettes here, including a funny episode at a horse track and a karaoke scene that trumps a similar moment in Lost in Translation), the movie is lighter than air ... and then it crashes down when Yuko is hit with a particularly nasty bout of depression. Steadfast and honorable, Shoichi stays with her and slowly nurses her back to sanity, and it is these small scenes (the cooking of dinner, the buying of medicine, the washing of clothes) in which the soul of It's Only Talk resides. As the title suggests, Yuko's natterings are a front, a clever means to hide the confusion within, and it is only in silence -- the breaking of morning sun through the blinds, a smile of thanks -- that true communication lies. When a rehabilitated Yuko and Shoichi acquire two goldfish and name them Laurel and Hardy, it's a reflection of the film's theme: a mismatched duo who somehow complete each other. It all builds to a memorable kiss, and an ending that can only be called bittersweet, as each character receives an unexpected but fitting sendoff.

Hiroki is a simple filmmaker: there are no fancy camera tricks or editing on display, just a light touch and an attentiveness to details and his actors. Terashima and Toyokawa have great chemistry, but the film really belongs to Terashima. A well-known stage actor, she seems to have created her own character type in Japanese film: the knowing yet damaged outsider. She's pretty but not cute; grounded but not stilted; expressive but naturalistic. One moment she seems as young as a teenager, and the next as mature as a middle-aged woman, and her elasticity is perfect for a role like this, in which Yuko is trapped in a neverland between adulthood and adolescence.

The final shot in the movie is Yuko in isolation, sitting in her favorite public bathhouse -- in previous visits she had refused to remove her towel because she claimed she was covered in tattoos (another fib, we suspect), but now is she naked, submerged in water, only her face and shoulders visible, tears working their way down her face. "Everyone has gone away," she sighs. Are her tears those of resignation or catharsis? We're not sure, and I don't think Hiroki is, either. Both a return to innocence and an acknowledgment that things always change, It's Only Talk drips with humanity -- a paean to the random connections we make with ourselves and others, a wry confession that life is always in progress.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Boys Will Be Boys: 2007 SF Asian-American Film Festival (Part 3)

Dragon Boys (2006, Dir. Jerry Ciccoritti)

Andrea Jiang: You’re out there on the front line, stamping out the yellow peril. These guys threaten how you see yourself, so you’re out there like a Samurai warrior, taking them on one by one. You know, you could say something if you really wanted to. This is our lives we're talking about.

Tommy Jiang:
Samurai are Japanese.


The longest film in this year's festival wasn't even a film -- it was actually a four-hour Canadian miniseries (three hours plus commercials) that aired on CBC TV a few months ago. Transplanted directly from the tube to the big screen, Dragon Boys aims to be a sprawling saga of cops, criminals, and civilians, with Chinese actors unapologetically taking center stage. Director Jerry Ciccoritti, who was in attendance, assured the crowd before the film started, "It's long, but I promise you it goes by fast."

Fortunately, he wasn't lying. At three hours, you might shift in your seat a few times, but Ciccoritti, a veteran TV director, knows how to keep things moving. Like any good work of serial fiction, a lot of the fun comes from following the multiple storylines and characters as they criss-cross and collide with each other. Things start off with an immediate bang as Chinese thugs raid a Caucasian gangster's home and proceed to slice off his face with a meat cleaver (mercifully offscreen). Investigating the crime is detective Tommy Jiang (Byron Mann), your typical distracted family man and dogged cop, and he soon finds himself involved in a power struggle between two Chinatown crime lords -- top dog Willie "the Duck" Lok (Eric Tsang, basically reprising his baddie role from Infernal Affairs) and young upstart Simon Au (Lawrence Chou), also known as "Movie Star" (you know you're in Chinese crimeland when characters have names like Movie Star, Fox Boy, and Fat Ass, and new criminal recruits are dismissed as "eggrolls").

Soon innocents are pulled into the fracas: Jason (Simon Wong), the disgruntled teenage son of upstanding restaurant owners Henry and Mae Wa (real-life couple Tzi and Christina Ma) falls in with Movie Star's crew when they save him from racial harrassment by the local high school bullies. Before you can say "pear-shaped" an initiation robbery leads to an unexpected murder, and Jason is on the lam. Meanwhile, cutesy Cambodian immigrant Chavy (Steph Song) arrives in Vancouver, expecting to work as a model, but she discovers that she's actually been drafted to work at the local massage parlor/brothel run by Willie the Duck's estranged wife Belinda (Jean Yoon).

There's your scorecard -- now add some peripheral henchmen, assorted assassination attempts and games of one-upmanship, and enough tangled plotlines to fuel a few seasons' worth of drama, and play ball. Dragon Boys is unapologetic genre entertainment, replete with no-nonsense TV rhythms and the usual signposts of a tough gangland thriller: sleek Mercedes sedans, belligerent cell phone calls, wiseguy conferences that deteriorate into "mine is bigger than yours" face-offs, people's skulls getting battered by shiny briefcases and clubs, bloody clothes in garbage bags, glittering nightclubs and hookers, hands submerged in boiling cooking oil.

But apart from a few f-bombs and a scene or two of pummeling, there's little here that will confuse this with The Sopranos, because Ciccoritti is a relatively genteel director, more interested in plot movement than character. This is a good thing, because Ian Weir's script tends to lean towards what I call the James L. Brooks school of character development: Take an established stereotype, throw in a reversal to give the illusion of three-dimensionality, run with it. For example, Jiang may be a good cop, but he's a "whitewashed" soul with the trophy blond ex-wife who sees right through him (see the quotation at the top). Chavy begins her story as the wide-eyed innocent, but by the end she's been hardened by fate into your standard tough broad (her mangled delivery of the line "wiggle your ass" is a highlight). Henry Wa is a solid citizen, but when his son's life is threatened he gives in to his submerged violent impulses. Belinda Lok is a cold, unfeeling madam, but she has a soft spot for her hired help and the women under her wing. And so on and so forth.

It's up to the actors to flesh out these stick figures, and fortunately Ciccoritti has assembled a decent cast. The veteran actors (Tzi Ma, Eric Tsang, and Jean Yoon) give especially notable performances, while the youngsters (Steph Song, Simon Wong) acquit themselves well. Projected on the big screen, the production is modest but classy, with a nocturnal sheen, and the plot tumbles along agreeably, but ultimately it slows down to a somewhat anticlimactic battle of wits between Byron Mann's Detective Jiang and Lawrence Chou's Movie Star. It's an interesting exercise, watching these two actors and their different approaches: Chou snarls, purrs, and coasts by on oily charm, and while it isn't necessarily acting, he fares better than Mann, who overplays the earnest cop bit when the script contrives to back him into a corner -- he's an agreeable lead, but not very convincing at desperation.

Some might find this film to be an unflattering portrait of the Chinese community, what with the usual stereotypes (gangsters, restaurant owners, whores) in evidence. Ciccoritti addressed the issue in the post-film Q&A, musing that characters shouldn't be judged by their socio-economic status, but how compelling they are as characters. Not a bad reply, although his case would be served better if the characters actually did have three dimensions, a la The Sopranos.
But the Chinese in the film definitely have it over their white counterparts, who are either portrayed as skeptical critics ("Every time two Chinese guys get together, white people think they’re a gang") or comically inept henchmen.

Dragon Boys has been hailed as a kind of breakthrough, in that we have a predominantly Chinese cast headlining a major network miniseries (a sequel is already in the works), and perhaps there's something to that, as modest as that achievement may be. It doesn't offer anything startling in terms of story, and its insights into the Asian condition are more like sidelong glances, but at least those Asian faces are very much in the spotlight, and there's a hint of sadness in the ending: Jiang, his mission seemingly accomplished but at great personal cost, stares at a sunset on the beach, looking west but actually looking to the East, at the China that he can't leave behind, no matter how much he might want to.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Summer of Love: 2007 SF Asian American Film Festival (Part 2)

Summer Palace (2006, Dir. Lou Ye)

I knew when I first met you that we were standing on the same side of the world.
-- Yu Hong, Summer Palace

It's difficult for me to be objective about this film, because I lived it, in a sense; in 1994 I traveled to Beijing and taught English at the People's University of China for a year. Five years after Tiananmen Square, you could still sense the aftereffects in the air -- students wary and shy as they approached foreign teachers to talk about life in the West (and dream a little more); the slow infiltration of McDonald's and Dunkin' Donuts; the undercover cops patrolling Tiananmen at all hours; the way the city seemed to be awakening from a deep sleep and opening itself up to possibilities again. I've been to Beijing a few times since that memorable year, and today it's an urban juggernaut strutting its way forward ... but I can still remember the guarded hope of those times.

Summer Palace is a chronicle of those times, and the times before then. It's amazing that the film was even made; even though it's fiction, it's probably the most direct look at the events of June 4, 1989 to come out of China so far, and it also goes further with sexuality than any previous mainstream Chinese film. Naturally this got the movie a grand premiere at Cannes, pissing off the Chinese government (the Chinese-French co-production hit the festival circuit before the official censors had a chance to eye it) and resulting in a five-year ban from making films in China for its director, Lou Ye.

Getting past all the political background and intrigue, this film isn't really about politics, or at least it's about politics as much as the Unbearable Lightness of Being is about Communist rule in Prague. Lou follows a different tack from his Chinese New Wave contemporaries (what is it now, the sixth generation?) in that his influences are mainly European -- his first film Suzhou River (probably still his best work) was a meta-modern update of Hitchcock's Vertigo, and his second Purple Butterfly (with Zhang Ziyi as a reluctant rebel during the 1930s in Japan-occupied Shanghai) wasn't so much a historical tale as a claustrophobic, lushly photographed study in l'amour fou. His movies are drenched in atmosphere above all else -- not everything everyone does makes complete sense, but the mood sticks with you.

Summer Palace (the title refers to the old Imperial Summer Palace in the northwest corner of Beijing, and a scenic lake that serves as the meeting place for the two central lovers) works with a broader palette, although the clear influence here is Milan Kundera. The film opens in a Chinese border town near Korea, in 1987: Yu Hong (Hao Lei) has been accepted to Beiqing University, and she celebrates with her loyal best friend, losing her virginity in the process (boy and girl are fully clothed, but it's a startling scene). Flash forward to 1988: Yu Hong is at university, and it is as if that opening sex scene was a preamble, an opening of the floodgates, because now she is flush with sexual experimentation. Pals with fresh-faced Ti Li (Hu Lingling), she spends her time sleeping and falling in and out of love with the idealistic, brooding Zhou Wei (Guo Xiaodong), when she's not sharing him with Ti Li. A typical sampling of dialogue:

Yu Hong: I want us to break up.
Zhou Wei: Why?
Yu Hong: Because I can't leave you.

Yes, very European, and not least because Yu Hong is given to long ruminations about relationships and existence that often end with thoughts such as "I can only call it love." Skirting close to parody, it works because Lou captures the aching innocence and sincerity of it all with his usual artful visual style (see the top photo). His montages recreate the rhythms of life at a Chinese university circa 1989: students swapping imported cigarettes in cramped dorm rooms, walking down halls arm in arm, shuttling soccer balls across dusty fields, holding chaste dances at the local bar, studying at night under the fluorescent classroom lights. Objectivity fails me here, as these scenes were a major shot of nostalgia for me, but Lou certainly has an eye for the details.

In the meantime, the university has been caught in the throes of the democracy movement -- bull sessions in empty classrooms, group excursions to Tiananmen on the back of a pickup truck, shared songs and hopes and laughter. Politics are touched on, but this film is more poetic than political -- Lou's message seems to be that the tide of sexual freedom and existential musings spilled over into the political arena like an onrushing wave, the Chinese Summer of Love. Even as Yu Hong and Zhou Wei get bacchanalian (including a full frontal nude shot of both of them), the feeling of anything-goes, of things spiraling out of control, is building.

At the halfway point of the film, June 4 rolls in, and although the events are elliptical (we see news footage of what takes place at the square, and bear witness to some violent incidents close to the campus), they are fraught with panic and confusion. Just as Yu Hong's first sex scene was like an entry into the bohemian university life, so Tiananmen slams the door on the antics. Disllusioned, Li Ti and her boyfriend Gu Ruo (Zhang Xianmin) retreat to Berlin, and soon Zhou Wei joins them. Yu Hong quits school and returns home, only to later relocate to Wuhan, in central China.

From this point on, the story gets diffuse and sketchy as we skip forward, a few years each time. Yu Hong toils for a government bureau, having lost all purpose in life, content to bed a variety of ill-suited partners (the sex scenes become more graphic and more forlorn in the movie's latter half). Zhou Wei seems to enjoy life in Berlin, but he longs for home, and the chance to see Yu Hong again, even as Li Ti becomes ever more mentally unbalanced and possessive of him. All the principals seem irreparably wounded, although it's never clear what exactly drove the wedge between them. It all crashes to an end with a final rendezvous between Yu Hong and Zhou Wei in 2001 at the oceanside resort town of Beidaihe (another twist of nostalgia for me -- as captured faithfully in the film, the seaside has an austere loneliness to it).

So what's Summer Palace all about, finally? Difficult to say -- the second half doesn't have much connection to the first, and character motivations vanish in the haze. This is a problem carried over from Lou's previous films -- his characters (particularly his female characters) are less flesh-and-blood people than an assemblage of emotions and ideas. Filled to the brim with self-awareness ("You gave your blood readily in war. Peace came, and you could barely take a single step") and stranded in isolation, they're pretty to look at, and impossible to figure out. In Purple Butterfly, the camera huddles close to Zhang Ziyi, admiring her but not necessarily diving beneath the skin. The same thing happens with Yu Hong here (although Hao Lei's fearless performance nearly overcomes this distance).

Maybe distance and dissonance is the point; the drug-like high of pre-Tiananmen idealism evaporates like smoke, giving way to the dragging, meaningless days that dog our mopey heroes to the end. But if Summer Palace is meant to be an existential take on how love and life are impacted by earth-shaking events, Lou hasn't taken enough care to give us the connective tissue that shows the why and the how. The adventurous subject matter, acting, and the impressionistic visual style make the film worth watching, and Lou has the "unbearable lightness" part down cold -- now he just needs to fill out his beings.

Stormy Weather: 2007 San Francisco Asian American Film Festival (Part 1)

"Yellow is a difficult color to wear."

It was the first Saturday of the 25th San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, and I heard these words from the couple standing behind me in line. They were noting the shirts that the festival volunteers were wearing, speaking in aesthetic terms, but as soon as I heard those words, I thought: And there's a perfect way to start this essay ...

Twenty-five years after it was first launched, the SFIAFF indeed shows how difficult the color yellow is -- but in a positive sense. Like a den mother taking in wayward orphans, the festival takes in every kind of film (narrative, documentary, long, short, irreverent, deadly serious) from every country out there, suggesting that being "yellow" means, well, being a citizen of the world, which means that it can mean just about anything. And just when you're ready to categorize the whole thing as some kind of triumph for boundary-free indie spirit, it then throws in a few marquee projects with big-name stars to give everyone the idea that Asian American cinema may be the Next Big Thing (this year's biggie was Dark Matter with Meryl Streep, which I didn't have the chance to see, but if the Variety review is any indication, it suggests that Asian American narrative cinema is as problematic as ever).

So in short, the festival is and has always been a mound of conflicting impulses, as every good film festival should be, and as I settled in for this year's batch of films (mostly narrative -- I still remain a sucker for good fiction), I was eager to see if yellow cinema was pursuing interesting new directions. For the most part, I wasn't disappointed.

In Between Days (2006, Dir. So Yong Kim)

yesterday i got so scared
i shivered like a child
yesterday away from you
it froze me deep inside
come back come back
don't walk away
come back come back
come back today
come back come back
why can't you see?
come back come back
come back to me

-- "In Between Days," The Cure

One of the pleasures of festivals like this is seeing work that won't soon (if ever) hit the distribution circuit. Case in point is this film by So Yong Kim, who up to now has focused on art installations and short experimental films (see Indiewire for a good interview with the director). Even though the movie won a jury prize at Sundance and has made the festival rounds, it probably won't be coming to an art house cinema near you anytime soon.

Shot over 24 days on digital video and loosely based on Kim's experiences as a displaced immigrant in LA, In Between Days is a forlorn little movie. The story is minimalist (some would say plot-less): 15-year old Aimie (first-time actor Jiseon Kim) has relocated with her mother to a cinderblock apartment complex in Toronto. During the day, she plays hooky with Tran (Taegu Andy Kang), a fellow Korean immigrant and would-be tough guy who has a knit cap forever planted on his head, Eric Cartman-style. At night, the two of them hit local parties, break into cars, and make halting, darting conversation with each other -- the painfully real, fumbling conversation of teens who know that they want something, but don't know exactly what they want. As their relationship takes two steps back with every one step forward, the little things -- an expensive bracelet as a gift, a stolen graduation photo, a homemade tattoo that scars horribly -- gain totemic significance. Interspersed with this larger story are random shots of a blurry, bleak Toronto winterscape, with Aimie reciting what appears to be a letter. We eventually learn that these are messages to her father, who ran out on the family long ago. When she says "I think you'll really like it here" in the most disconsolate voice imaginable, the misery is palpable.

So the film isn't a barrel of laughs, and it doesn't build to the usual explosive climax (emotional or otherwise), but it bears watching. The movie belongs to Jiseon Kim (amazingly, this is her first big-screen performance), and she's completely natural and believable as Aimie. Not your typical airbrushed teen beauty, she's a bit heavy, with a shy, sullen face, and the unforgiving camera often catches her in looming close-ups, searching for signs of disclosure and weakness. It's to her credit that she can bring out the drama and delicacy of her character's adolescence under such close scrutiny. I found the cinematography striking -- it captures the full-on January bleakness of Toronto, and it makes the most of natural lighting and everyday settings (a snow-covered field, a bus stop hidden behind a pane of glass, a cramped, dim apartment).

Overall, the film is very much in tune with the painful realities of growing up, minus the soap opera dramatics, which is its strength and its weakness. Grabbing hold of a particular place and time rather than relying on plot movement, what little there is of the story peters out after the first hour, and everything ends on an ambiguous note that suggests that relationships may be fleeting -- or just constantly in flux. So brittle it feels like it might melt like a snowflake in your hand, you could call In Between Days nothing more than a pure mood piece, but as such it has loads of texture, and deserves to be watched on a dark, dreary night, when even the thought of loneliness seems somehow attractive. Even though the Cure tune quoted above isn't referenced directly in the movie, both share the same plaintive, simple edge, and the sense of a life in limbo.