Here are some quick reviews of a few films to wrap up this year's Asian American International Film Festival. You can catch some of them at upcoming Asian American (and Canadian) film festivals in San Diego in October, and in Vancouver and Toronto in November. A past review covering Jeff Adachi's You Don't Know Jack can be found here. The festival film I looked forward to the most, was Tze Chun's Children of Invention, and it did not disappoint.
The film follows a single-parent Asian American family struggling to make ends meet. After the mother gets caught up in a scheme, her young daughter and son are forced to fend for themselves. In the process they hatch their own bold plans while their mother is away. I found the film to be touching and also funny, with only a few minor criticisms below. From the Q&A, Tze admitted that the film was heavily autobiographical, and his sister was present at the festival showing. The story was shot in Boston's Chinatown and in various parts of the nearby town of Quincy (from what I could tell), which I personally enjoyed as a local Bostonian.
I thought the strength of the film was in its cast, especially the children who both give strong performances. Crystal Chiu was adorable as the ignorant, spoiled younger sister. Michael Chen played the complexity of the brother character well, subtly conveying the weight on his shoulders, his own naivete, as well as his attitudes toward his mother. The Chinatown grandfather had one of my favorite scenes in the film, when he reminisces to his grandchildren.
Finally, actress Cindy Cheung played the mother, and in my opinion had the most difficult role (which I believe was due to the script). I found the mother character to be hard to like in this film, simply because I personally felt her insistent behavior (against the advice of other characters) to be unrealistic and/or hard to understand, whether it be in her job choices or her actions toward her children. Nevertheless, I thought Cheung conveyed strength and depth in the film. On an interesting side note, I discovered after researching the film, that Cheung is actually married to author Ed Lin (of the book Waylaid, which director Michael Kang turned into the film The Motel).
Onto other films...I also caught a short entitled Red Yellow Blue, directed by Changhee Chun who is a professor at Ithaca College. The short was a funny, self-reflective monologue, combined with other scenes, inspired from the life of an Asian American (Suzanne Schwartz) who was adopted by a white family. Parts of her experience included wishing she didn't have Asian eyes as a child, encountering the common 'where are you really from' question, as well as some humorous passages as she reconciles being okay with herself.
The last film I saw was Li Tong, by Nian Liu, which won an award at the festival. This film had a somewhat familiar set up of a spoiled, ignorant little 8-year-old girl in Beijing who gets lost in the city and bumps into a poor, scrappy migrant-worker's son, who helps her. The director also admitted this film was autobiographical, however she said that her real-life experience was actually very boring and uneventful compared to the scenes that she added in her film. This film was very different in tone from Tze Chun's version of children lost in a city who have to fend for themselves, as the pace of Li Tong was slower, and it was more dramatic and sobering (mostly due to the setting).
I thought the best part of the film was in the backdrop of scenes, conveying the huge socioeconomic disparities among people even in a major Chinese city (where high-end shopping malls stand next to poverty-stricken ruins), the utterances of various local Chinese in the background, as well as the fast-moving pace and advancement of China's industrialization. Despite doing an excellent job with this aspect of the film, I ultimately did not greatly enjoy this piece, as I was too irritated and distracted throughout the film by the attitude and behaviors of the main character. In contrast to Crystal Chiu's depiction of an adorable yet naive little sister who matures in Children of Invention, I thought the Li Tong character was too selfish, self-serving, and didn't really grow from her experience.