Posted: 07/16/2005

 

28th Asian American International Film Festival: July 15-31, 2005

by Aaron Riccio




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Two weeks, 26 features, a bevvy of workshops, short films and a partridge in a pear tree. Except for the partridge, the 28th Annual Asian American International Film Festival (AAIFF) begins this Friday, July 15 and runs through the 31st, offering an extensive look at the best new works from a wide variety of countries. The innovative works and styles presented by Asian CineVision (ACV) span all genres, and with so many choices, there’s no reason not get involved ASAP.
One of the big events of the festival is the premier of Olivier Assayas’s “Clean,” which opens in conjunction with an awards ceremony for the star, Maggie Cheung. “Clean” is the tale of what happens after getting off drugs when family and friends desert you, and also stars Nick Nolte. Star-studded or not, each film is exciting, fresh and strikingly original, and the only place to see them is during the AAIFF. “Ab-Normal Beauty,” brings real Japanese horror back to America in the hands of true masters (the Pang Brothers) and “Pink Ludoos,” while set in India, deals with the same issues of family and love that are underneath every culture.

“Blue Hour,” a sci-fi thriller made on $1000 looks to be visually unique, following a man named John’s troubles after submitting to medical experimentation to pay down a debt. This is true filmmaking, out of passion and love, rather than exploitative special effects. There’s “Crying Out Love, in the Center of the World,” a romantic tragedy that explores our conscious and unconscious connections between the past and present; as a polar opposite, “Izo” an ultra-violent modern samurai film which promises to top the gore of each scene with even more in the next, an in-your-face commentary on the nature of violence.

Among the constant screenings of these premiers (some world, some US), AAIFF is also offering a bold selection of workshops that look to close the gap between audience and filmmaker in interactive and thought-provoking sessions. Open to anyone, from the curious to cinematic, each panel offers a look at the process from concept to art. Among the offered events is “All About The Benjamins” (or how to get funding for your film), a live staged reading of an competition-winning screenplay (“Forgotten Tears”) and a lively discussion on how to adapt a novel to film.

More information, including full listings of programmes and ticket prices can be found at www.aaiff.com or by calling the Festival direct at 212-989-1422.

Pattaya Maniac

“Pattaya Maniac (Sai Lor Fah),” a Taiwanese film by Yuthlert Sippapak would like to believe that it defies genre and escapes the conventional traps of the bigger studios. Yet for all the madcap angst and affability of the cast, any movie involving 3 million in currency being passed about like a football (complete with traditional goons and gangsters on defense) is bound to fall into the traps of comic filmmaking. And much as Sippapak may poke fun at some of his own forced characters (one mafia boss berates his goons for being so generic), he’s never really loose or free enough for “Pattaya Maniac” to take off.

It would be easy to compare this to Stephen Chow’s “Kung Fu Hustle”—but Sippapak didn’t set out to create a live-action cartoon. His characters are real: flawed and almost tragic in their inabilities. When the good natured Tun (Somchai Kemglad) falls in love with a prostitute, we can believe his pathetic puppy-dog love about as much as we don’t fall for his over-the-top drunken antics. When his best friend Tao (Choosak Iamsuk) is constantly thrown out of karaoke bars for his unremitting non-conformist singing, we understand where he’s coming from (even if we might disagree with his homophobic furor). And when the two clash over how to handle Tun’s lovesick ways, there are sparks of humor lost in the buddy pictures of today.

The problem is that we know from the premise how the movie will end. The two will cheat the odds and adversity, trick the gangsters, free the girls and live without consequences in the movie land of “Happily Ever After.” Though Sippapak comes close to crossing this line with some moments of mirthful violence (it’s hard to understand why the semi-torture and kidnapping of a drag queen is amusing) and a few editing tricks, he stays away from the darkness of some other fast-paced multi-genre films, like “Snatch” or “Go.”

So “Pattaya Maniac” is a little unbalanced. And it’s utterly predictable. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t fun while it lasts. We just wish the movie had a little more of Tao’s wild and manic energy and a little less of Tun’s saccharine doldrums.

Hip-Hopera

For a film festival hoping to illustrate how the blend of Asian and American influences is a benefit to our cultures, I can think of no better contribution than the “Hip Hopera” screenings. Collecting three short documentary pieces and one impressive feature-length work called “Monkey Dance,” each segment illustrated not only the perennial clash between old and new but made heavy commentary on the integration of cultures that really aren’t as different as we sometimes believe.

“Monkey Dance” best exemplifies this, directed by Julie Mallozzi (her second feature) and following the lives of three teenagers through high school and the first year of college. While Mallozzi initially planned to follow just the dance troupe and then just a collection of teens, the film developed and branched out of its own accord, growing to incorporate the struggles of the parents to adapt to American culture and to give their children lives free of such homeland terrors as the Khmer Rouge.

These narrators and stories are instantly accessible and recognizable; there is no real culture divide beneath it all, just the same love of family, the same peer pressures, and the same demands from schools. But it’s important to see these similarities, just like it’s reassuring to see that through adversity, perseverance really can pay off. The documentary (which compresses five years into sixty minutes) has no shortage of interesting moments, although some (like a car crash) seem completely out of place, while others (like one student’s return to Cambodia) are given a little too much weight.

While it’s not hard to depict “real life” when you’ve literally filmed it for so long, Mallozzi does a wonderful job in piecing together these threads, making it the little moments that count: Linda, at home chatting with friends over AIM; the light in Sochenda’s eyes as his academic advisor confirms his dream school acceptance; Samnang’s modern twists on the classic “Monkey Dance,” and the passing down through generations of this important cultural remnant.

As for the shorter pieces: it’s pretty much a given that the less space you have to tell a story, the harder it becomes. You have to slim things down and focus with needlepoint accuracy on capturing the audience’s attention, burning a picture into their eyes. The only thing “Thunder Lannyang” left me with was an intense reminder of what a documentary shouldn’t be. More of a publicity piece for Jin-Tsai Chuan (a devout preserver of the ancient Baguan opera) than a documentary, director Hsueh Yuting does no more than gloss over the defining moments in Chuan’s life (as a coalminer, for instance), ignoring the suffering defeat or difficulties of the time in order to squeeze in a few more minutes of the trill Taiwanese music. Without a compelling narrator or cohesive presentation, the piece was more a collection of press clippings on poster-board than a movie, and altogether boring.

“Among B-Boys” was equally faulty, but for other reasons. While the hook was there, the tale of break-dancing keeping teens from the streets, Christopher Woon’s project can only be described as a work-in-progress, crammed into four minutes of what appear to be no more than snippets and shout-outs to all the B-Boys out there. “United Nations of Hip-Hop” on the other hand owes its brevity to a lack of funding: Christina Choe hopes to develop this look at Senegalese rap into a feature documentary. In her ten minutes, she manages to capture the essential difference between American rap and the real need for rap in Senegal: Jay-Z (for example) can afford to bust lyrics about his girls and money because he has it. In these other places, rap is more than a way of life, it is the only form of expression and a living breathing art, one that uses “culture and intellect as a ” Despite some sub-titling problems, the short glimpse is gripping and echoes from the cracked and broken walls of Senegal across the medium of film and into the heart.

Regardless of cracks and flaws in the foundation, the “Hip Hopera” program, mainly on the strength of “Monkey Dance” comes across as a refreshingly honest assortment of the cultural quirks that distinguish and unite us: our hopes, dreams and passions, laid bare.

AB-NORMAL BEAUTY

Psychological horror has never looked so beautiful. Ab-normal Beauty, until an awful deus ex machina begins to sour the first 80 minutes, is a fantastic look at the thin line between life and death, beauty and ugliness, and all those other thrilling parallels. Director Oxide Pang (a solo effort after working with his brother on previous semi-surreal horror films like The Eye) knows exactly how much blood to let drip from a darkroom photo before jarringly splicing the audience back into a simply red-lit reality. This unsettling effect never gets stale and evokes the very nature of photography: one moment we’re seeing the blank canvas of reality; in the next, odd things are developing.

Oxide is a professional, and he has fully fleshed out the motif of photography surrounding Jiney, his art student protagonist. Never mind that she happens to be lesbian and happens to be pursued by an S&M serial killer (that’d be the unnecessary twist towards the end); she has all the necessary baggage for an interesting character. You know, ignored as a child and abused by her peers: the stuff dysfunction is made of. And neither Oxide nor Race Wong (who plays Jiney) is afraid to walk that road; their two talents collide to make for a very compelling walk on the wild side.

Most movies have a clear direction: Ab-normal Beauty chooses to linger on the psychological points of the film, perhaps why this horror of a serial killer seems to come out of nowhere. Aside from that, Oxide plays the film close to his chest, revealing through tightly wound pacing the workings of Jiney’s destructive mind. He makes the routine slaughter of chickens evocative, the use of a facial mask disturbing and the car crash that begins Jiney’s obsession with death is most troubling in that it lingers off camera and out of focus, giving us only the initial reaction of a frightened girl, out of her depth. By choosing this route, everything becomes sinister because the world is in fact a frightening place.

Ab-normal Beauty is slick and glossy (or sick and something that rhymes with glossy and means creepy), much like a developed picture. Oxide’s dissonant editing and selective choice of score drag out the tension and each frame is rife with a darkened beauty. This is powerful filmmaking in a constantly underperforming genre: the horror, the horror… has never looked so good.

WORK-IN-PROGRESS WORKSHOP

Greg Pak (director of Robot Stories) stands—or rather sits—comfortably at the left hand of a short table. He calls first-time documentary filmmakers Kyoko Yokomo (screening Dancing with Lives) and Francis Hsueh and Steven Hahn (showing Party) up on stage to sit on this panel with him. He then launches into a spiel about this self-explanatory Work-in-Progress Workshop: mainly that it is “the most important event of the festival.” According to him, that is. Is he right?

Yes. And no. It’s great for the AAIFF to sponsor an event like this on behalf of filmmakers and the audiences who want to know what goes on creatively once the footage has been shot and the movie needs to be made. However, the only people really giving feedback about the two 20-minute segments of each film shown were the directors themselves. And the clippings aired didn’t really provide enough background for the audience members brave enough to speak anything to work with. The insights into the editing process and clever little anecdotes from Pak about needing to let “the movie tell itself” and to be able to cut those segments “we love” are interesting in of themselves, but it’s not really a workshop. And although the directors stayed past the 90 minutes required (relocated to an adjoining room), the whole thing felt quite rushed and ill-prepared. It’s hard to be critical for an audience, and the only real advice given seemed the most obvious: don’t be ambiguous in themes. A documentary’s job is to be as specific and human as possible (as I mentioned in the coverage of Monkey Dance).

So while this might not be the most important event of the festival, Pak is correct in calling these three intrepid documentary-makers “brave.” Dancing With Lives looks to follow the idea of comfort and security atop the undertone of professional dance over a ten-year period, while Party observes the cultural life and alternatives of an Asian American youth that feels occasionally misplaced. It wouldn’t be fair to critique either work-in-progress, though Party seems far more relevant and interesting to the whole heart of the Asian-American Film Festival. This project, when finished, could very well be the 29th Annual’s next big amateur documentary.

On the whole, the evening was fast paced and short enough to stay interesting to the casual participant and is just one more eclectic offering from the 28th Annual Asian-American International Film Festival’s choice selections thus far.

Shock Jock (A Collection of Short Films)

The short film is the lifeblood for the next generation of aspiring filmmakers, a marketable niche useful for low-budget experimentations and cavorting with new techniques. Like the sketchbook or early drafts of artists and writers, no reel of film is wasted here in the Shock Jock collection of 11 short films: there’s something to be learned in every picture, good or bad.

If there is any one fault in the mainstream melting pot of Hollywood, it is that formula and endless production meetings have stifled forward momentum and creative risk. Weird ideas and eccentric techniques aren’t worth the investment and only established directors are trusted to advance million dollar ideas. Thankfully, the short film industry, useful as a means of gaining that initial (and unfortunately conforming) credibility lives on at film festivals, giving the intrepid viewer ample opportunity to gorge on a wide variety of quirkily gory and gorily quirky shorts. Not only was Shock Jock—an 11-film screening—a chance to catch directors in the process of growing and learning, but it was also one of the most downright creepy and entertaining displays of Asian American panache and individual style I’ve ever seen.

While the lack of polish might put off tightfisted viewers, there’s something charming about first-time filmmakers or groups of friends putting together films for contests and competitions, grinding together a hearty and breakneck effort to meet deadlines. “Do Not Disturb” for example, was Michael Ogasawara’s first (and only) foray into animation, and yet his distinct stop-motion literally took on a life of its own, a self-taught mechanism that depicted (what else?) a self-taught mechanism. “”Or,” on the other hand, was a professional and “or”-gasmic piece of meta-cinema, allowing the filmmaker to distort and jumble objects and characters with the scratch of his protagonist’s pen. This was art for the sake of art and pleasure, with no angry investors forcing romance or other secondary stories onto the piece. Just unadulterated cinematic free-basing.

The majority of films were comedic, using the short time to set up a series of jokes and the inevitable Twilight Zone twist. “Spam-Ku: I Won A Haiku Contest About Spam,” in it’s sheer sarcastic adoration of spam would be hard to dislike, and served as one of the festival’s most polished pieces. Some of the less impressive (not less entertaining) were “The Hairs” and “The Preparation,” which in truth resembled one-liners more than films.

The longer works (12 minutes and up) were more gripping, mainly because their characters were allowed some life and breadth to tell an arching story. “On Guard” and “Call Center” were both very well crafted films; the former (by Kevin Lee) really humanized the very expendable position of security guard, the latter (Amyn Kaderali) is a must see, satirizing the outsourcing of many help lines to foreign countries. The comic timing of the mistaken identities (the operator forgets which companies he is representing to each of the five callers) is fantastic: believing that he speaks to a faulty cable user, he reminds him to check that the object is plugged in before use, too late realizing that he has a caller from Suicide Watch who lies in a bathtub, toaster on hand.

The longest and most ambitious piece (“Harlequin,” by Phillip W. Chung) was extremely successful, although it’s surely destined for the tedium of late night Showtime, as a soft-core porn/horror film. Using quick scare tactics and ominous foreboding to illustrate three sexual vignettes of murder (wrapped around a flimsy central plot), “Harlequin” never ceases to unsettle the viewer, though a scene with two lesbians, a strap on and an impaled heart is perhaps pushing this a little too far for this “Shock Jock.”

Then again, where would we be if we said too much was enough? Certainly not developing any new talents! And so the Asian-American International Film Festival continues to promote the future faces of cinema: young, bold and innovative—life before board meetings and a lack of creative control.

The Music Video Show

Because of their common nature, many people tend to dismiss the shortest types of films: commercials and music videos. They may be pamphlet-like in their distribution and single-minded focus, but that doesn’t mean the content or visual experimentation isn’t enticing. The Asian American International Film Festival certainly realized this, airing a collection of 21 music videos that spanned genre and style with panache and verve.

Michelob Light (on behalf of Annhauser-Busch) also recognizes this: the program began with a competition of five 30-second commercials incorporating music and beer. Even in these shortened segments, the competitors exhibited a real control with compressed edits and surprising focus. The professional black-and-white imagery of winner Steven E. Mallorca’s “Got Me Like” could easily have taken just as long to make as some of the short films from yesterday’s “Shock Jock” or even some of the lower-budget full-length music videos.

These longer music videos, aired consecutively, were all in similar genres and had similar themes, yet each featured unique and completely fitting visual flair. Despite low budgetary restrictions for the majority of pieces, they all still came across as extremely polished: the restrictions in collaborative work between two extreme art forms forces out the best work of a filmmaker. They have no time to waste with superfluous details; each shot is related directly to the rhythm and story of the piece. The end result are these frequently overlooked self-contained and emotional stories that go from sound to sight and back, the ultimate spectacle.

One of the most impressive pieces, “Blue Collar Blues” by the Far-East Movement was Todd Angkasuwan’s first music video and also faced the troubles of low budget. It didn’t seem that way: shot after shot raced across the screen like lightning, using multiple horizontal and vertical lines to contain each segment. “I tried to experiment a little,” said Angkasuwan at the Q&A afterwards. While discussing the different locations and shots, he also said, “You make do with what you’ve got… get creative.”

“Last Trumpet” by Lyrics Born (Evan Jackson Leong) was also a good looking number, using digitally imposed effects and a multi-paneled collage effect to show the unease and insecurity of a post 9/11 America. Animated segments were also featured, including the mainstream Linkin Park video “Breaking the Habit” and a very creative computer-animated project called “Scent of a Robot.”

It would be impossible to do justice to each piece through mere descriptions. Suffice to say, the land of music videos is a breeding pit for making the best shorts in the market, whether they are recognized or not. Just ask Michael Gondry or Spike Jonze where their innovative talents in the world of MTV have gotten them; or better yet, go watch their highly successful big screen feature films. Don’t miss the best of both worlds: when music and videos merge.

Aaron Riccio is a writer and film critic in New York City.



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