APA reflects on Journey from the Fall -- this time from the perspective of its premiere in Orange County, where the Vietnamese American community helped give the film the weekend's biggest per-screen average at the North American box office.
Acclaimed soprano and distinguished teacher Shigemi Matsumoto talks about the unanticipated road to success.
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Opening weekend at the VC brought plenty of excitement. And then there were the films, which our APA team broke down, capsule-style.
Journey from the Fall
Dir: Ham Tran
Ham Tran's sprawling, stomach-punching Journey from the Fall is some kind of period piece -- only, instead of corsets and aristocratic animosity, there's plenty of punctured flesh and immigrant sturm und drang to go around. Journey has a lot on its plate: from the fall of Saigon to Little Saigon; from terror on land (the frighteningly bleak re-education camps) to sea (the travails of the boatpeople). It's also that rare Asian American film with grandiosity to spare -- lush, panoramic cinematagrphy, an appropriately bombastic score, and a narrative engine that never seems to run out of steam. That's because, unlike most historical epics, Journey isn't merely concerned with the past, and pointing out the impossibility of escaping its most harrowing times. Survival is always at odds with silence -- which is what happens when three generations of Vietnamese immigrants try their best to forgive, but not forget. Grounded by scintillating performances all around, it's the triumvirate of Kieu Chinh -- as the oldest and most burdened by regret -- Long Nguyen -- as the father fighting so hard for his family's survival he forgets about his own -- and Diem Lien -- as Mai, the quiet, desperate woman trying to keep it all together -- that'll leave you battered, bruised, and most of all, bewildered that such a galvanizing film hasn't found a distributor yet.
Dir: Du Haibin
Du Haibin, whose Along the Railroad is among my favorite recent Chinese documentaries, returns with the even more formally challenging Beautiful Men, which depicts the lives of a community of gay men in split screen, constantly pointing us to the many dualities of their daily lives: male/female, night/day, tradition/modernity, gay/straight, sober/high. Unfortunately, because the documentary employs two parallel image tracks, our eyes become restless and the visuals come off as overly busy and therefore impatient and scattered, ultimately diffusing their emotional power. The image of the Chengdu highway from the point of view of a moving car or motorcycle is the documentary's central motif, representing the aimlessness of the depicted men, all of whom are pessimistic about love but drive on nevertheless. It took me a while to buy this metaphor, but once I did, the themes of aging and familial ties became increasingly convincing. Testimonials by individual men are powerful (especially the stories of a man who recounts his criminal past, and another who marries a lesbian), but I especially liked the candid scenes of the backstage of a drag show, where performers excitedly transform from crude, mischievous men to elegant, composed women, and then back again.
Only the Brave
Dir: Lane Nishikawa
Inspired by several of his uncles who served in the 100th Infantry Battalion in World War II, writer-director Lane Nishikawa made Only the Brave in order to pay tribute to these soldiers and to shed light on these acts of American heroism that often go unmentioned. After Pearl Harbor, when 120,000 innocent Japanese-Americans were put into internment camps, thousands of husbands, fathers, and sons stepped up, despite the injustices that had been placed upon them and their families, and volunteered to fight for their country. These men became the 100th/442th Battallion, who liberated many towns in Italy and France, before taking on the dangerous and important rescue of the Texas "Lost Battallion" -- where they ended up saving 211 out of 275 Texans, while losing many of their own.
The film follows these soldiers' missions, juxtaposing the bleakness of combat with bright, almost fantastical-looking flashbacks of their lives back at home. Lane Nishikawa, inevitably, is the stand-out performance in the main role of the platoon leader, and he gives the movie a strong backbone. Unfortunately, the flashback scenes with the wives and girlfriends back home come across as a bit campy and saccharine -- though one could argue that for the segments of the audience that connect deeply with the rich culture and history, that unapologetic sentimentality might be just what is needed to hit home. Nevertheless, the film works best while we're watching the interactions between soldiers, whether they're fighting in battle or just passing time until their next life-or-death situation. The quality of the war scenes are impressive, especially considering it was shot for under $1 million in the backlot of Universal, and overall, it's an ambitious passion project that, judging from the endorsements of multiple congressmen and veterans associations, the large crew including 60 volunteer PA's, and the emotional Q&A session from the cast after the screening, clearly means a lot to the Japanese-American and Hawaiian communities.
Dir: Tseng Wen-chen
Taiwan's insanely beautiful east coast is the real star of this 2005 romantic comedy about a Taipei woman who falls for an Aboriginal on a work trip to Orchid Island. Issues of tourism, labor exploitation, and poverty are hinted at but ultimately skirted in favor of feel-good stereotypes of kindly, self-sufficient, simplistic Aboriginals and the kind of superficial inter-ethnic romance that pleases Han nativists without holding them responsible for the Aboriginals' contemporary problems. Plus there's an A-mei song. On the other hand, the film's naturalistic pacing and untiring sweetness make it an effective, if predictable, teen romance that's a welcome presence in the contemporary Taiwanese film scene. Its dogged optimism (the film's most tragic scene is when the woman gets a parking ticket) works better than it should, in part because everyone's so likeable and the settings are so overwhelmingly serene.
Punching at the Sun
Dir: Tanuj Chopra
A labor of love that's as heartfelt as it is harried by an overzealous desire to convey grit and gumption over storytelling gusto, Tanuj Chopra's Punching at the Sun is nevertheless a worthy addition to the rapidly expanding canon of Asian American urban parables. The South Asian community in Queens, New York is wracked by grief over the senseless murder of a young basketball legend named Sanjay. His younger brother Mameet -- who Sanjay mentored -- prefers to sulk in the shadows of existential loneliness, surrounded by two buddies that are considered wastrels, a younger sister who flouts his authority, and a love interest possessing more snap and sizzle than he knows what to do with. What's most remarkable about the film is not its stylistic flourishes (an LSD-induced hallucination scene allows him to show off several all at once) or rather staid moments of post 9-11 disillusionment, but its all non-professional cast. Sometimes, of course, it shows, but less often than you think -- Misu Khan, who plays Mameet, is especially virtuosic: whether snarling, pouting, or thug posturing, he's urban angst personified.
Dir: Toon Wang
Toon Wang's first animated feature is an adaptation of an episode from the Chinese classic Journey to the West, starring everyone's favorite pilgrim primate, Sun Wukong, otherwise known as the Monkey King. Unfortunately, the soul of the original story and the exhilaration of the 1964 animated classic Uproar in Heaven are compromised in favor of juvenile frivolity and annoying sarcasm. There's something refreshing about the modernization of a classic story (the pop culture references, the contemporary jargon, the rock music, the sprinkling of cram-school English) and the film sure is fun (its non-stop action makes it far superior to Taiwan's stale Butterfly Lovers animated feature in 2004), but in the end, it's too much Mickey and not enough monkey. Still, the film's visuals are so technically magnificent that I look forward to the inevitable sequel promised its final scene.
Date Posted: 5/11/2006