Lodestone Theatre's first musical production revamps 1885's controversial opera, The Mikado, and celebrates Asian American theatre with dose of politics and sweet harmony.
Spring is festival season here in Los Angeles, especially for fans of Asian and Asian American cinema. But rare is the new festival that combines innovative programming with a love for contemporary world cinema.
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When it comes to Asian and Asian American selections, the 2006 Los Angeles Film Festival is far from prolific. But it's worth a gander anyways. Brian Hu looks ahead to what's in store.
The quantity isn’t there, but in terms of quality, the L.A. Film Festival has more than done its job this year when it comes to films from Asia. At the top of its selections: So Yong Kim’s Berlin and Sundance-award-winning In Between Days, a poetic film debut about a Korean teen who moves to a snowy American suburb. Another Korean debut that’s one of LAFF’s must-sees is The Unforgiven, Yoon Jong-bin’s undergraduate thesis film about masculinity and compulsory military service that became a smash at the Pusan Film Festival.
But let’s talk about quantity first. A mere ten Asian or Asian American films out of 116 is pretty disappointing, and is made worse by the fact that one of them is The Seven Samurai, a great film, but an unnecessary one in a film festival that should be highlighting new waves and rare classics. It gets worse: of the seven new films, three are from mainland China, three are from South Korea, and one is Asian American. It’s bad enough that Asian American cinema makes up a mere one out of 116 films at the festival (the population of Los Angeles is 10% Asian American by the way), but there isn’t a single new film from Hong Kong, Japan, Thailand, Taiwan, the Philippines, India, or Singapore. One could argue that festivals such as LA’s VC FilmFest (which specializes in Asian and Asian American cinema) and the Silver Lake Film Festival’s Fusion Asian Cinema sidebar (which had as few Asian films as LAFF, but programmed with more diversity and courage) monopolized this year’s film crop, but that wrongly assumes that there aren’t enough Asian films this year to go around. I could make a list of highly regarded and anticipated Asian films not screened at this year’s festival, but instead I’ll refer you to the lineup for Subway Cinema’s New York Asian Film Festival, going on at roughly the same time as LAFF (http://www.subwaycinema.com/frames/nyaff06films.htm).
That said, this year’s LAFF does have a few films (such as In Between Days) that L.A. film buffs have been waiting for, and some (like The Unforgiven) which are welcome surprises. Also in the first category is Grain in Ear, which we covered at the Palm Springs Film Festival, and is a provocative depiction of ethnic Koreans living on the edge in China. As in his debut Tang Poetry, director Zhang Lu, himself a Korean Chinese, uses silence and space to convey a sense of dead time. L.A. has also waited patiently for Yu Lik-wai’s All Tomorrow’s Parties, part of the festival’s valuable “The Films that Got Away” series hosted with the UCLA Film and TV Archive. As the cinematographer for Jia Zhang-ke’s films, Yu is a specialist in powerful images, and here, he concocts a vision of a futuristic, post-national China. As in Grain in Ear (and weirdly enough, Chen Kaige’s The Promise), the persistence of Korean ethnicity drifting across official or unofficial borders questions the singularity of “China” as a cultural constant. It’s not a great drama, in my opinion, but All Tomorrow’s Parties does contain some of the most unforgettable images in recent Chinese indie filmmaking: scenes across barren deserts; a child being admitted to an Orwellian elementary school.
Of the surprises, I’m most excited about Wang Ming’s Before Born, which has been getting mixed reviews since playing at Berlin in February. What makes it essential is that it’s by the idiosyncratic director of In Expectation, one of the more important mainland films of the 1990s. Descriptions I’ve read of the film depict Before Born as a film noir by way of Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura, which could explain why many have found its brooding alienation off-putting, but for fans of something a little different, this stylish look at love could be just what the festival needs. I’m also looking forward to Equan Choi’s Voice, the fourth in Korea’s acclaimed high school horror series, after Whispering Corridors, Memento Mori, and Wishing Stairs. Variety has already called it the best in the series so far, and it promises to be a highlight of LAFF’s “Dark Wave” program.
The sole Asian American film in the festival is Undoing, by Chris Chan Lee, who made the action comedy Yellow, which actually received a limited release back in 1998. Another L.A. story about young Korean Americans, Undoing boasts a stellar cast of familiar faces: Sung Kang, Kelly Hu, Russell Wong, Leonardo Nam, Bobby Lee. The L.A. Film Festival has no excuse for playing only one Asian American film, but it’s refreshing that the one they do choose is the world premiere of what looks to be one of the year’s more notable films by an Asian American filmmaker.
Finally, probably the highlight of the entire festival is the series “3 Los Angeles Filmmakers You Should Know,” which spotlights three very important exiled directors who -- unbeknownst to most -- live in the L.A. area. Also co-hosted with the UCLA Film & TV Archive, the series includes a film by each of the directors: The Mission (Iranian director Parviz Sayyad), My Mother and Her Guest (Korean director Shin Sang-ok), and The Arch (Chinese director Cecile Tang Shu-shuen).
The innovative Shin Sang-ok, who sadly passed away in April, is most famous for being the South Korean director who, along with his actress wife Choi Eun-hee, was kidnapped by North Korean film buff slash dictator Kim Jong-il to make, among other films, the Godzilla-esque Pulgasari. After escaping in 1986, they fled to the U.S., where they lived for over 10 years. Shin’s wife is scheduled to appear at the Archive when the festival plays My Mother and Her Guest, which stars Choi as a widow who falls in love with a houseguest of her mother-in-law.
Equally exciting is a rare screening of The Arch, which recently placed number 20 on a Hong Kong Film Award’s list of the 100 greatest Chinese films of all time. Director Tang Shu-shuen, who studied filmmaking at USC and will be present for the screening, is one of the landmark figures in Chinese cinema, not only as one of the first and few woman directors, but also as one of the major influences on the 1970s Hong Kong New Wave, whose leaders, like Ann Hui, Patrick Tam, and Alex Cheung were attracted to Tang’s activist spirit and sensitivity to women’s subjectivities.
As with last year, which saw the short film program “Before Anime: Japanese Animation 1925-1946” and the RZA-pick The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, the Los Angeles Film Festival is proving to be a great festival for great programs of historically important, hard-to-find classics of international pedigrees. A series like “3 Los Angeles Filmmakers You Should Know” shows the festival at its boldest, taking advantage of L.A.’s neglected resources and drawing attention to aspects of local and international film history that critics, historians, and scholars frequently overlook. We can complain all we want about the quantity of this year’s Asian films, but the presence of these two legendary films more than makes up for it.
Date Posted: 6/8/2006