In an era when Jackie Chan, John Woo, and the Shaw Brothers are American cult celebrities, it’s easy for U.S. audiences to overlook many of the greatest modern Asian filmmakers, such as Wong Kar Wai (“Chungking Express”), Tran Anh Hung (“The Scent of Green Papaya”), Hirozaku Kore-eda (“After Life”), or even internationally recognized pop-culture gods such as Hayao Miyazaki (“Princess Mononoke”). Yet when watching even “art-house” Asian film, whether made in the US or shot in Asia, I immediately get the sense of strong connections that tie the West and East together. Our mutual cultures, both popular and mainstream, have blended together in so many ways that the gaps between us are closing to the point where it is much more difficult to see our differences than our similarities. Yet Asian culture, both in its native lands and in the United States through immigrants and their descendants, is different from American culture, and in crucial, albeit often subtle ways; and not the ways that are typically imagined or portrayed by purely Western filmmakers. One key thread that appears time and again in Asian films is food. Bonds between Asian families, as depicted by these filmmakers, are forged and maintained over steaming bowls of traditional cuisine. An inordinate number of scenes occur in around the dinner table or in restaurants (the modern form of which were a Sung Dynasty invention).
Nor is the shared experience limited to simply eating, but preparing and cooking these meals is also a major part of the communal experience. One of the films in the festival program, “Spicy Love Soup,” perfectly illustrates this point, as it is a series of vignettes themed around the ups and downs of love, and all but one story features scenes of shared meals. The moments in “Soup” are almost miniature models of the function of food in Asian cinema, as meals are shown to be not only essential bonding rituals, but also times when important decisions are made, the hierarchy of family reinforced, tradition is confirmed, emotion can sometimes build to confrontation, and simple but important minutes are spent in the shared company of others like oneself. Most of the films I’ve seen at this year’s festival contain at least one, and usually more, scenes of communal dining. To me, these scenes act as a reminder of my own connections to community, whether familial, collegial, or artistic. And nothing will cement you into the body of a local film festival community like standing in line for the next feature at a massive, important event like San Francisco’s Asian Film Festival. Conversation inevitably turns to a comparison of the films you’ve seen with those of your neighbors, and you can bond with fellow moviegoers over the ones you loved, or passionately debate the ones you loathed. For those who cherish solid, intense film conversation, film festivals cannot be beat. Now if they only served decent meals in the theaters, then audiences might connect on a level deeper than as merely random strangers, but as a community united by art and food.
More information about the Asian American Film Festival can be found online at: http://www.naatanet.org/festival
[ M/OTHER ] ^ * * * * ^ This film’s pace is not defined by Western, Hollywood standards of timing, plot, and revelation. Rather, it is assembled via slow accretion of character detail. The cast worked with director Nobuhiro Suwa to improvise the scenes, and the result has a documentary flavor, and at times, even feels almost voyeuristic in its relentless pursuit of objective realism. The only downside to this process is that at times certain moments feel like watching paint dry, yet that side effect is simply due to the fact that most people’s real lives are also packed with bland routine that most filmmakers would never seek to capture. Many scenes are simply one, long shot, and often depict the characters having basic back-and-forth chatter that in and of itself is uninteresting, yet like pieces of a puzzle, reward patient viewers with an overall picture that provides deep and realistic insight into honest, plainspoken human emotion and behavior. It’s a brave kind of filmmaking when a director is willing to wait for these moments to take as long as in real life to build, over long stretches of quiet minutes, and it takes a real fan of film-as-art to sit through it. If you like Andrei Tarkovsky’s pacing and Mike Leigh’s style of directing actors, you’ll be treated to the kind of subtlety in this film that most other filmmakers are afraid to even attempt.
[ THE QUIET FAMILY ] ^ * * * 1/2 ^ Imagine a dash of “Arsenic and Old Lace,” a pinch of “Shallow Grave,” and a splash of Billy Wilder, and you’ve got this amusing little package. When a dysfunctional Korean family buys a lodge in the middle of nowhere, they inadvertently become an attraction for several suicides. In order to avoid bad publicity for their failing business, they hide the corpses. Over time, the bodies keep stacking up, and stashing them becomes increasingly difficult. While never out right hilarious, its black humor does create a steady stream of lighthearted chuckles, and it never aims to be macabre enough to actually become creepy. Its middle-of-the-road stance thus marks it as an amusing diversion, albeit forgettable.
[ VANAPRASTHAM, THE LAST DANCE ] ^ * * * * ^ This is a leisurely-paced but fascinating film about an unusual and beautiful form of South Indian performance, the Keralan theater of Kathakalini, which combines dance, music, sung dialogue, and pantomime. The film’s main character is a Kathakali performer named Kunhikuttan, who although a revered master of his art has little wealth. He endures a loveless marriage, mostly for the sake of his beloved daughter, performs his art for weddings and festivals throughout the year, and is often on the road with his troupe of musicians. When he meets a wealthy member of royalty, a beautiful woman named Subhadra, her love for the theater, and especially her obsession for the character he plays so masterfully, leads to a romantic union doomed to fail. One of the most riveting elements of this film is certainly the theater performances, which are sublimely expressive nuggets of traditional South Indian culture. South Indian superstar Mohanlal learned his movements to perfection, and is so immersed in his performance, that he is completely believable as the master artist he plays. Even when his enormous frame is dressed in the spectacularly garish drag of a female role, his deep immersion in his roles and the fact that the characters he plays are larger-than-life mythical figures, inexorably draws you into total suspension of disbelief; he literally becomes those Indian gods and heroes. Lush cinematography tops off this gorgeous film, with scenes so rich in color you can smell the fertile damp of the Indian jungle and the taste sweat on Kunhikuttan’s brow as he works himself into the rhythmic fever-dream his roles demand.
[ JUNK ] ^ * 1/2 ^ This film lives up to its name, in that it’s an experimental pseudo-narrative (or non-narrative) that toys with every hip quasi-intellectual idea of the last 50 years. It digs through discarded heaps of deconstructionist art-wank like a scrap dealer searching for gold in a garbage dump, but never scores. Filmmaker Roddy Bogawa swallows several college textbooks worth of semiotics, then regurgitates a thin, half-digested bile of Chris Marker, stock footage, Yukio Mishima, French New Wave cinema, Andy Warhol, and nonsensical linguistic claptrap designed to be “deep.” He overreaches enormously, and drowns in his own pretentiousness. The Marker references come hot and heavy in the form of elliptical narration, cryptic title cards that never relate to the images (“A History of Forms,” “Restless Reflections,” “Cannibalize the Wreckage”), and even a blatant “La Jetee” reference with a pointless scene in a French Airport. The characters speak in epigrams (“Epiphany comes every day. Understanding is overrated.”), and the bargain-basement art design attempts to evoke a pseudo-cyberpunk feel, with random bits of technological detritus thrown in for good measure. In short, the work stinks of student-film-itis, and wallows in its own immaturity and plagiarism like a self-satisfied hog. Just to reinforce the fact that it’s “cool,” its soundtrack includes cuts from such bands as Coedine, Fugazi, and Steel Pole Bath Tub. God, aren’t we just cutting edge?
[ SPICY LOVE SOUP ] ^ * * * 1/2 ^ Several tales of love and relationships are woven together around themes of food as cultural connective tissue. This film is filled with small moments of quiet charm, and the sum total adds up to a pleasing, if not deep, package. One of the most remarkable revelations for my Western “gwailo” (white devil) eyes, was just how modern present-day Beijing looks. In many ways, it seems interchangeable with Hong Kong yet they are obviously two very different cities and cultures, and my impressions are purely based upon the superficialities of what they look like on film. And after years of seeing films such as “To Live,” which dissects China’s revolutionary years with a bitter eye, or last year’s grim anti-Communist neo-feminist cautionary tale from Joan Chen, “Xiu Xiu,” I have become accustomed to seeing films by Chinese filmmakers about mainland China that paint the government and society in less than flattering terms. Yes, Virginia, there is an everyday, ordinary Beijing, populated with people, many of whom live simple lives relatively free of persecution or worry. Yet with my post-Tienanmen Square view of China’s present government, as well said government’s constant aggressive posturing towards Taiwan, I eagerly await a film that rips the Reds for their unjust persecutions of Falun Gong members; it’s all too easy for me to assume the worst of the Chinese government. That said, “Spicy Love Soup” avoids politics entirely, and sticks to the comforting broth of love, Mandarin style. It’s also cheerfully entertaining. Was there a film review in there?
[ THRONE OF DEATH ] ^ * * 1/2 ^ This Indian film is a surface attempt at Kafka. When a poor villager steals some coconuts to feed his starving family, he is accused of a greater crime, that of murdering a local notable, because officials running for re-election need a scapegoat to placate the public. The Communist party vows to the man’s wife that they’ll help the man, but instead of demanding his release, they lobby for his execution to be carried out with a modern “electronic chair” that will kill him painlessly. In becoming the first person to die by the chair, his family is assured financial remuneration, and he is lionized as a hero. The story is a better idea than its execution, which lacks finesse, and is missing the dark humor and menace that underlies Kafka’s works.