Toki wo Kakeru Shoujo takes on Studio Ghibli -- and succeeds.
Orgies, nudity, kitsch, and prostitutes -- what could possibly go wrong?
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Blood of Yingzhou District and Cats of Mirikitani won jury prizes at VC, while New Year Baby scored the audience award. We couldn't agree more.
New Year Baby
dir: Socheata Poeuv
Socheata Poeuv's documentary joins the growing body of personal, or first-person, cinematic work on the Cambodian genocide, such as Rithy Panh's S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine (2003) and Spencer Nakasako's Refugee (2003). Like Mike Siv's in Refugee, Poeuv's story is an encounter with already known and undiscovered truths that had been kept secret, but lead to more kept secrets. But it's not done for selfish reasons; on the contrary, New Year Baby is first and foremost a journey through a journal of traumatic memories, tackling how the process of mourning -- encompassing legal justice -- can begin. When her mother surprisingly divulges the actual nature of family ties that Poeuv had always considered immediate, a trip back to Cambodia becomes an occasion to find out more about what lies behind the knowledge that she had grown up with regarding her family, the genocide, and how they survived. Poeuv visits her relatives and her parents' hometowns, the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, and Angkar Wat, but also the site of the Thai refugee camp where she was born, Pol Pot's burial site, the home of former Khmer Rouge cadres, and the labor camp where her parents met. As Poeuv said in the Q&A, what makes discussion about the genocide particularly painful is that it was a matter of Cambodians killing Cambodians. To talk about one Cambodian's victimhood is to talk about another's guilt. Most effective is the way personal and national histories become so conflated in talking about the genocide. Also interesting is the use of animation to present dramatic reenactments. When her mother resists further interrogation via the camera, Poeuv continues her journey with her father, which constitutes some of the most moving scenes. Traumatic indeed, but also, hopefully, healing. --Rowena Aquino
The Cats of Mirikitani
dir: Linda Hattendorf
Linda Hattendorf had no idea what she was in for when she discovered homeless artist Jimmy Mirikitani on a Soho sidewalk in mid 2001. What began as a promise to photograph Jimmy turned into a superb feature documentary for the simple fact that Mirikitani was no ordinary artist, and to her credit, Hattendorf (in her directorial debut) was no slouch behind the camera and in the editing room. As it turns out, the 80 year-old Mirikitani led quite a life: from birth in Sacramento, to education in Hiroshima, to internment at Tule Lake, to staple in the postwar New York art scene where Jimmy was a colleague of Jackson Pollock. As Jimmy tells a civil servant, he has "perfect memory," and it's that lucid memory of a life crushed by racist government practices that forced Jimmy into semi-seclusion while inspiring charming sketches and paintings of camp life, nature, and cats. Hattendorf also didn't anticipate the events of 9/11, or the parallels between the backlash against Muslims in the months to follow and the roundup of Japanese Americans following Pearl Harbor. It's through Jimmy's angry commentary following 9/11 that the documentary derives most of its contemporary relevance. Meanwhile, it's through Hattendorf's archival investigation into Jimmy's past (something I wish the documentary explained more) that The Cats of Mirikitani becomes a searing emotional reflection on the post-internment psyche of Japanese Americans and their families. This is the rare documentary where the many surprises are genuine because they come out of earnest human interactions, not reality show provocation. --Brian Hu
Miss Chinatown USA
dir: Kathy Huang
A beauty pageant is not the first site one imagines for a reflection on Chinese American identity. In fact, documentary filmmaker Kathy Huang has expressed in interviews that she was first drawn to film the pageant out of curiosity as to why anyone would still participate in a seemingly outdated event. Yet, it's this backdrop of a beauty pageant ingrained with decades of cultural politics that perfectly enables an examination of identity issues within the community vis-ŕ-vis the mainstream. Miss Chinatown USA frames the journey of Katie Au, a contestant who embodies much of the fears and anxieties that affect Chinese American women. University of Washington student and Seattle Seagals cheerleader Katie observes that she feels less than her Caucasian counterparts at times, because the makeup artist seldom takes into consideration her "Chinese" features. What is interesting about Miss Chinatown USA is how it brings such issues into the usual discussion. Too often, the community divides itself on notions of cultural authenticity. It's the very reason why Chinese Americans such as Katie feel ostracized from what should be rightfully their community. In examining how we focus on the visceral, we begin to confront what qualifies as beauty and more specifically, what qualifies as a Chinese American beauty. In midst of the plastic smiles, Katie stands out for her candor -- her willingness to divulge insecurities about her appearance and her Chineseness. --Christine Chiao
In My Home
dir: Mina T. Son
Mina T. Son's In My Home is a poignant look into how a loved one's health complications can tear apart, yet also paradoxically bring together a family. For two years, Mina has been the stay-at-home caretaker of her mom, recovering from a series of surgeries that left her with only half of her small bowel. The documentary follows Mina as she confronts the emotional and physical difficulties of suspending her professional, and at times personal, life to help with daily responsibilities. One of the more common narratives in the Asian American community is that of the selfless parents who forsake much to provide their children with opportunities. It's not to say that parents don't deserve attention for their sacrifices, but seldom is heard of the child who lives up to the classic tales of filial piety that have been interwoven in traditions across Asia and carried over to the States. Mina's experience, then, draws focus to the undoubtedly many young Asian Americans who step up and sacrifice for their loved ones. What makes In My Home impressive is the frankness with which Mina handles her mom's condition. She treats the viewer like an old friend, inviting you to see her mom undergoing daily treatments of total parenteral nutrition (TPN), owning up to the frustrations that come with sacrifice, and most importantly, sharing moments of levity that persist despite it all. There is no public vs. private face as Mina wrestles with her experience, unflinchingly documenting her mom's medical condition and its effect on her, without any loss of dignity. --Christine Chiao
One-way Street on a Turntable
dir: Anson Mak
Anson Mak meditates longingly on the social implications of movement and rootedness in Hong Kong. Movement in terms of walking and working, but also historical movement, from a British to Chinese colony. Rootedness meaning a physical and spiritual confinement, as well as a historical stasis. The program notes for this experimental documentary calls the work a rumination on colonial history vis-ŕ-vis personal autobiography, and I suppose that's right, although I was more fixated on what the documentary seemed far more interested in: using videomaking as an allegory for retroactive memory. What I mean is this: Mak's narrator is an émigré from the mainland who, while living in Hong Kong, dreams of the pre-colonial pastoral of her adopted home. Similarly, the documentary expends great energy in (successfully) making video technology look like film; in other words, she uses an adopted medium to nostalgically dream of a pre-video cinematic glamour (most beautifully captured in a quiet scene shot with silent-era camera movements and faded sepia). Unfortunately, Mak's own image frequently gets in the way. In one voice-over, she compares movement to a "tango with memories" and a dance in "forgotten streets." But what we see is Mak obsessively swirling the video camera around herself in dizzying ecstasy; ultimately, she tangos not with memories, but with the image of herself. It's refreshing to see experimentation coming out of Hong Kong, but the narcissism wore me out a bit. --Brian Hu
The Blood of Yingzhou District
dir: Ruby Yang
Date Posted: 5/11/2007