After a long, icy winter, New York City hit 75 degrees yesterday. And as luck would have it, I spent over five hours in the pitch blackness of a movie theater, winding my way through the shorts in this year’s Korean American Film Festival New York. My labors were rewarded, however, with a realization about Asian America.
KAFFNY’s short-film selection hints at a new kind of self-obsession: who needs identity politics when you can be a brooding artist living in your own head? If you thought it was hard being Asian American, try being an artist on top of that, the filmmakers seemed to say. I call it “progress” that so many of the films explored the pursuit of this higher, lower-wage calling.
Maria the Korean Bride was not what I expected it to be. Maria Yoon is part Laurel Nakadate, part Brian Feldman, which is to say her documentary is artless performance art. To defy cultural expectations around marriage, Yoon buys a hanbok and some old-school Korean accessories and embarks on a journey across America, seeking a willing bachelor or lesbian or mascot in every state to be her temporary, (un)lawfully wedded “groom.” We watch grainy, low-fi video of her slow, head-down, hands-together walk down the aisle toward a musher in Alaskan snow, an overalls-clad North Carolinian eating barbecue pork, a drag queen dressed as Diana Ross in Las Vegas, and a wetsuited woman surfer in California. On the road, donning her getup from the back of her SUV, Maria ponders aloud, "Why do I keep doing this?"
Art Han asks the same question in Works of Art, director Andrew Pang’s romantic dramedy about an underemployed Asian American actor who goes on a fateful date. Art’s a loser because he can’t get regular acting work, not because he’s Korean, although the two may be related. The opening sequence has him running around Manhattan to less and less promising auditions, which I found much funnier than the rest of the audience did (film types who know these humiliations too well?). The character’s encounter with a beautiful woman breathes hope into his ragged actor’s life of temp-jobs and a grubby apartment. But he seems to wink knowingly at us: he’s going to keep trying.
In Chase Thompson: A Film By Chase Thompson, we see not only actors but also writer-directors, cameramen, and even boom-mic operators following their dreams of making art: in this case, the best low-budget zombie movie ever. Director Vincent Lin’s clever short is a Charlie Kaufmanesque turducken of a film. We begin on the set of a lowbrow romantic drama, which Chase Thompson has commandeered to revolve around himself and random living dead. He is soon fired by the producer and sent into a brief spiral of despondency. A supportive, one-dimensional woman comes to the rescue, reminding him of his male genius and prodding him to recruit volunteers and make his dream zombie flick. This is when it gets fun. We watch repeated, condensed takes of the film within the film, getting better each time as new people are added to the crew, until it looks pretty damn good -- industrial fires burning, gore on slain zombies, and a warm-and-fuzzy huddle behind the scenes.
Equally self-conscious were the fine-arts films about art. Pyeunghun Baik’s Arirang Blues is part of a shorts trilogy exploring, in abstract terms, the work of dancers, musicians, and visual artists. Baik has a strong sense of color and conveys forcefully the movement and strain of the body. And I mention again the KAFFNY art-short I most admire, Daddy Called Me a Snake by Sun Young Kim, which is viewable online. In three minutes’ time, Kim puts music, typography, and image to splendid use, answering the question “why did you become an artist?” more convincingly than any artist’s statement out there.
I left KAFFNY yesterday with heady thoughts of an artistic turn in Asian America. “Follow your dreams” was not a command I heard growing up, but in the wake of Amy Chua’s literary gaffe, maybe future Asian American parents will be more permissive and white parents more stern. As I walked through the Village last night, behind a white woman talking loudly on her cell phone, I overheard her say, “You go, Tiger Mom!”
(KAFFNY continues through tomorrow in NYC.)