Hapaness at SFIAAFF: Half Life

March 10, 2009

Yes, slow pacing is something American audiences are allergic to, but
that doesn't mean that slowing down the pace is necessarily a bad
thing. And Jennifer Phang's new feature Half-Life
-- one of the films at the center of the SFIAAFF's hapa programming
this year -- is all about the slow revelation of what's simmering just
under the surface. That's great, and there's a lot to like here, but
ultimately, what the glacial pace reveals is the film's inadequacies,
and not the complexities of character, mood or action.

It is
the near future and the ecosphere is on the verge of collapse. The Wu
family -- Mom, teenaged daughter, and young son -- are still mourning
their abandonment by Dad. Mom has just brought a new man home and his
presence is strange and disturbing in an increasingly creepy way.
Teenaged daughter has a reckoning with her sexuality, and young son has
a reckoning with his ability to alter space/time. Meanwhile, teenaged
daughter's best gay Korean adoptee friend, with whom she's
stereotypically in love, is screwing the local, closeted, black
grade-school teacher to shove his sexuality in his religious, white,
denial-addicted parents' faces.

That's a lot of drama, and adjectives, even
for two hours, but the film unfolds so slowly that its landscape
appears clean of drama, or even of emotion. This isn't helped by the
affectless performances, which are so consistent that they declare
themselves a fault of direction, and not casting. In too many scenes,
characters appear together in the frame without seeming aware of each other's presence, leaving the subtext empty. A tighter edit would
help enormously: flat affect could contrast nicely with an illusion of
varying velocity. As it is, the film is inoffensively boring.

But it is beautiful.
Somewhat butchered by the puzzling editing, shot after lovely shot of
southern California's golden invasive grass and suburbs speak volumes
of history and politics about our appetite for environmental
destruction. Combining live action and Waking Life-style animation, Half-Life
actually has some pretty cool tools on its side, denoting fantasy sequences (or are
they fantasy?) with animation and strange special effects, and
flattening more "realistic" sequences in a sort of summery SoCal glow.

The whole thing leaves me ambivalent, which is appropriate for a film featuring four hapa/TRA
main characters. It doesn't have to place us comfortably in one place
or another. I'd say: if you're looking for a good narrative experience,
skip it. But if you're looking for a good film experience, consider checking it out.

Half-Life is playing at the SFIAAFF on:

Friday, March 13, 8:20 pm
Pacific Film Archive, Berkeley

Sunday, March 15, 12:45 pm
Sundance Kabuki 4 , San Francisco

Tuesday, March 17, 6:30 pm
Sundance Kabuki 3, San Francisco
Saturday, March 21, 7:00 pm
Camera Cinemas, San Jose

This blog entry is graciously sponsored by Toyota Matrix. Check out their website dedicated to the best in Asian American film.

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