How to Get the Most Out of Your Asian American Movie Madness

March 13, 2005

My second bad habit is a left over from my eighties-era teenaged contrarianism. I have a terrible tendency not to want to see the movies that everybody else wants to see. If I hear a warning that a movie will sell out, I will deliberately not get tickets to it. Let the fashion victims see the popular movies! I'm going there to find diamonds in the rough. hmmmph! As a result I only end up seeing two or three lukewarm movies and leaving slightly dissatisfied.

This year, determined, despite my capitulation to my usual habits, to get the most out of my film fest experience, I bought tickets to see at least one film every day of the festival, to try to overwhelm bad luck and bad habits by sheer magnitude. So far, the results haven't been encouraging.

Friday's temptation, Pink Ludoos, was a cliché-ridden mess whose high drama moments were mostly howlers. By the end of the film, the audience had relaxed and was just treating this South Asian magical realist melodrama as a comedy--it was much more comfortable that way. Aside from a poor script, clunky directing, and smoke-signals acting, I was kinda offended (or at least, intelligence-insulted) by the fact that the culturally enlightened (read: westernized) heroine and hero and spiritual advisor were light-skinned, while the more tradition-bound characters busy holding everyone back were distinctly dark-skinned. Maybe I'm being too hard on an indie flick ... naaaah. It was pretty bad.

Well, so much for the Asian American (or Canadian) narrative flick. I had greater hopes for the documentary I was to see on Saturday, I Was Born, But ..., something of a personal essay around punk rock, the underground scene, Joey Ramone's death, and Seam concert footage. The director of this piece was certainly far more ambitious and sophisticated than that of Pink Ludoos, however, not much more successful. Shots and editing that were meant to be meditative were just excruciatingly slow: why hold a static shot for thirty seconds when ten will have the desired effect without the undesired effect of putting the audience to sleep? The pace was glacial. Speaking of which, I couldn't tell if the Seam concert footage was so incredibly poorly lighted because Seam shows--which I've never seen--are poorly lighted, or because the director didn't know how to light a concert scene, or because he thought it would be cool to make the audience wade through an unedited song's length of murky. I fell asleep. Twice. Worst of all, though, was the fact that this personal essay obsessed on the personal and forgot the essay part: i.e. gave us an undigested sampling of essentially meaningless personal anecdotes, without opening these up to broader connections with the world, the era, the times, the ethos ... ya know, the good stuff. I might have been too hasty, though, in walking out of the theater after an hour. Perhaps all these faults were mitigated by the genius of the last half hour. But if so, the director lost me before he could make his case, and that's a fault you can't recover from.

This afternoon things started lookin' up, though. Even though it sold out, and everyone on the Hyphen staff seemed interested in seeing it, I still gritted my teeth and went to see the popular Chinese Restaurants: Three Continents, a documentary about three Chinese restaurants in Madagascar, Norway, and Canada (which opened with two shorts on Chinese restaurants in England and the States). Chinese Restaurants confirmed my previous experience that documentaries are the best things at the SFIAAFF; full of fascinating historical background, sharp characters, and a great deal of graceful filmic narrative (ya know, the kind that lets gesture, voice and angle speak instead of voice over). I left that theater satisfied and hungry for more. Chinese Restaurants is playing again at the Kabuki on Thursday at 7:15. I definitely recommend it.

So what's the lesson here? Well, for one, buzz has to come from somewhere; it can't hurt to listen to it a little. I'm not saying that you (or I) shouldn't take a chance on an obscure or unpopular film or director. Just go prepared, and leaven the schedule with a heavy dose of the tried and true.

And buy your tickets ahead of time.




Well there was huge buzz for Ethan Mao, but the audience responded to it the same way you say they responded to Pink Ludoos. Much of the comedy was intentional, but much wasn't.On the other hand, the unbuzzed Sorceress of the New Piano was very cool; I want Margaret Leng Tan to be my Mom. (If you're reading this, Mom, sorry.)
Gotta disagree with Charlie --Sorceress of the New Piano was the worst thing I've seen so far. Granted, it was my third film that day, so fatigue may be a factor. But it went on about 30 minutes too long, as did the Q&A afterward --both the result of a director too fond of hearing himself speak. I think a great documentary draws you in whether or not you're originally felt interested in the subject --there are fascinating docs on gap-toothed women, for god sakes-- and this one had neither compelling structural arc or engaging storytelling.Ethan Mao at least made me laugh, however unintentionally.Great, however, was Butterfly, a Hong Kong lesbian love story of sorts that's replaying this week --and yes, there's a lot of girl on girl action. Beautiful mix of 8 mm film cut in, artful use of flashbacks to tell two stories at once, great acting and cinematography.Also worth seeing: Baytong and the Grace Lee Project.
UPDATE!I saw What's Wrong With Frank Chin? last night, a flawed but still excellent documentary on the cantankerous writer, by Curtis Choy. The best film I've seen so far at the fest. It's playing this Saturday the 19th at 2:30 PM in San Jose. Highly recommended.One thing I *didn't* like, though, is seeing Chin in person during the Q & A. I had never seen Chin in person before. I'd gone to see him read in 1999 at the Chinese Historical Society, but he'd had a stroke a day or two before. In any case, I've always admired him a great deal through his writing, and Choy's representation of him in the film, although sometimes gently mocking, bolstered my admiration. However, at the film's Q & A, grabbing the mic away from Choy and pacing the front of the theater haranguing the audience about not knowing Chinese mythology, Chin sounded like a blowhard completely out of touch with the times and with his people--a "people" he largely helped to define and even create.Not sure what to think of all this.