Writer Kanara Ty learns the hard way that sometimes free screenings are not always free.
One of the most practical ways for beginning filmmakers to cut their teeth is to start with the short film format. Cereal Monogomy, a memorable short at this year's VC Film Festival, documented one man's complex relationship with his breakfast food.
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APA's now seen all 11 of the VC Film Festival's 2007 nominees for best narrative feature. The Rebel and Baby may have took home jury prizes, while American Fusion ran off with the audience award, but we've got our own thoughts...
Finishing the Game
dir: Justin Lin
I'm going to refrain from the "good, but not great" or "just entertaining" judgments that have been lazily tacked onto Justin Lin's Finishing the Game, not because they're not true, but because such broad statements don't do justice to the specificities of what is actually there -- much of it unlike anything else I'd seen before. For instance, the playful pivoting of racial conventions, turning the ridiculous figure of a white guy who fights for yellow power because he thinks he's Asian, into an awkward but hilarious running gag about hypocrisy, hybridity, and humiliation. Or Sung Kang's shy neophyte thespian, who in one sense embodies two Asian stereotypes (the shy outsider, the crazed kung fu hero), but transcends the stock types through a surprisingly tender subplot about romance and career. Watching Finishing the Game, I realized that Asian American cinema has a lot to gain by having a huge cast of both Asians and Caucasians: namely, that it allows Asian American cinema (and its Asian American characters) to feel less insular and more integrated into mainstream society. As a result, it becomes a film about racial struggles within a film industry, not about "Asian American" issues. Finally, Finishing the Game was a great showcase for its actors. Of note is Brian Tee for his at once hilarious and skin-tingling performance as a Vietnam vet, and especially veteran actress Amy Hill, in a brief appearance that shows how for years her talent has been wasted because there haven't more films like Finishing the Game to showcase her potential. --Brian Hu
dir: Desmond Nakano
Baseball has been an intricate part of Japanese American culture for over a century. In terms of professional baseball, pioneers like Masanori Murakami and Hideo Nomo have paved the road for the many Major Leaguers playing today, including Ichiro Suzuki, Hideki Matsui, Daisuke Matsuzaka, So Taguchi, and Takashi Saito. Add to the equation America's recent accolades for Letters from Iwo Jima, and the folks at Warner Brothers are hoping to exploit the perfect climate for a film like American Pastime. Director Desmond Nakano uses a mainstream genre (the heartwarming baseball movie) to delve into the history of Japanese Americans forced into internment camps during World War II. The film follows the Nomura family -- parents (Masatoshi Nakamura and Judy Ongg), older brother Lane (Leonardo Nam) and younger brother Lyle (Aaron Yoo) -- to show the differing, and sometimes conflicting, reactions to their newfound confinement. A former collegiate player himself, Mr. Nomura starts a team within the fences, but Lyle, bitter about the full baseball scholarship he lost because of the war, refuses to play. Instead, Lyle, in teenage-rebellious-loner-musician mode, sulks around playing his saxophone and secretly courts Katie, a sweet piano tutor (Everwood's Sarah Drew), who happens to be the daughter of a camp guard. Parents disapprove, racism is abound, terrible things happen in war, and the film, of course, ends with a game between the guards' minor league baseball team and the Topaz camp's team. Who wins? And... how inspirational is it if you know half the players are just going straight back to the internment camp? Well, I don't have an answer for that. But despite the rather straightforward narrative, as someone who has a soft spot for the Sandlots, Angels in the Outfields, and Rookie of the Years of the early '90s, watching a confident, charismatic, charming Asian American kid winding up for the pitch and striking out arrogant, racist older men... that was pretty awesome. American Pastime will have a short theatrical release starting May 11, and will be available on DVD on May 22nd. --Ada Tseng
dir: Frank Lin
A groan was suppressed as the opening of the movie appeared on-screen. As Nat King Cole's ubiquitous "L-O-V-E" plays in the background, and as the camera pans across a sprawling green field of what appears to be an overhead view of a beautiful wedding, Frank Lin's American Fusion was off to a bad start, looking like just another fluffy romantic comedy. But as the camera zooms into the faces of the happy couple tying the knot, it is obvious that this movie is going to be one kooky ride. The groom was none other than the world's biggest heartthrob himself, Fabio. Lin's film itself is a fusion of many things. It combines both typical, romantic comedy shtick with more outlandish jokes and dream sequences, as well as a straight-as-an-arrow boy-meets-girl storyline with the rockier plot of a family's journey as they cope with life-altering situations. Esteemed Taiwanese star Sylvia Chang, with her sweet, twinkly eyes, dimpled smile, and rockin' bod plays the heroine, Yvonne, convincingly. Trapped between carrying out her true desires and withstanding her family's restrictions on her life, Chang's expressions change effortlessly from comedic to morose. Except for a couple of stereotypical depictions about Asian American roles, this film delivers. With a mix of mushy moments, outlandish dream sequences and dramatic mishaps, American Fusion is a fusion of all things great in romantic comedies. --Janice Jann
The Trouble with Romance
dir: Gene Rhee
The Trouble with Romance is simplistic in terms of setting, since the characters and the plot move only within a hotel and its interiors, during the course of one night. The reason this works is because the movie decides to zoom into four "romance" stories that are sequentially linked, because they all happen on the same floor with no point of connection other than when characters respectively pass or bump into each other in the hallway, occupy the same elevator, or fall victim of scornful gaze from the same hotel maid. The individual plots shift from a woman hallucinating and quarreling with her imaginary ex-boyfriend in front of her date, to a wife using a "threesome" bait to try to reveal her knowledge of his past affair, to a couple of three years on the verge of a "shitty" break-up (you'll see what I mean), and finally, to a male discovering through a call-girl the potential to love... perhaps. As much as the film tries to be thoughtful, the excessive dip into crude humor -- especially in the third story -- was almost nauseating, and definitely unnecessary, which could also be said of the first story's strange connection between heartbreak over an ex-boyfriend and hallucination. Some dialogue and scenes were definitely amusing at times, but the more serious moments were at best average, dangerously bordering on clichés and senseless rambling that only stretched out the time instead of provoking insight and producing more fully rounded characters. This ordered collage was semi-entertaining, but due to the lack of much needed script-editing and deleting, it will never be a timeless piece, only another addition to the plethora of movies that remain on the discounted shelves at Blockbuster. --Jane Yu
dir: Grace Lee
Grace Lee follows-up her lovable The Grace Lee Project with American Zombie. Zombies, as we're told in the beginning of the film, are "pretty fucking important" subject matter, not just for documentaries, but in life, because, well you know…they can eat us. That, at least, is the bias we have about zombies, a prejudice we've acquired from Hollywood's poor representations of the forgotten population. The film is a mockumentary in which Lee plays herself, a documentarian of "important" subject matter like race. Her co-director wants to shoot an exposé about brain-eating creatures, but Lee wants to document the personal traumas of being part of a marginalized group. Together, they stand for two impulses in ethnographic documentary (to shock, to educate), and what makes American Zombie such a hoot is that it transforms a trivial (okay, pretty fucking important) subject into a satire on documentary conventions. Whereas The Grace Lee Project was bogged down by the weight of the documentary form, American Zombie shows Lee transcending, even mocking, these conventions. While writing herself into The Grace Lee Project felt a little self-important, in this new film, it's a stroke of brilliance, enabling some of the biggest laughs while blurring the lines between reality and fiction in a way that made me truly want to believe in zombies and their plight. Zombies in movies have always embodied society's fears (be it civil rights-era anxiety in Night of the Living Dead, or war-time guilt in Joe Dante's recent Homecoming), and American Zombie playfully parodies the allegorical flexibility of "the zombie" as a cinematic placeholder for every marginalized group, from Muslims (in the Patriot Act classification system used to control zombie behavior), to homosexuals (there's a coming-out ritual, as well a "we're humans too" advocacy group), and Asian Americans (there's a discussion of gendered exotification). American Zombie unfortunately loses steam when it trades this satirical bite with a more cannibalistic one, yet it remains one of the great pleasures of this year's festival. --Brian Hu
dir: Juwan Chung
"We live for our brothers...without them we're nothing." It's a phrase that resonates within the title character of the movie, Baby. Baby is a South East Los Angeles gang member who has just been released from prison after entering as an 11-year-old. The movie follows Baby as he tries to go back to life on the outside, yet can't shake the life he knows as a gangster. There are less heavy moments, like when Baby reconnects with his first love or tries out several different hairstyles in his attempt to fit back into society. Yet Baby never wanders far from the dark mood that permeates every scene and conversation. In trying to return to his old life, he finds that everything has changed, but not much as improved. Baby's father is still mentally absent, and flashbacks show how the young boy finds a father figure in the boss of a gang. The movie relies on flashbacks to provide characters with more depth, and explains how such an average young boy could fall into the street life. While the film's graphic violence seems to make a statement about the reality of violence, at some points the blood and beatings are almost gratuitous. The fatalistic frame placed on the characters shows that people can make choices, but some circumstances are uncontrollable. While Baby is not exactly Asian America's version of Menace II Society or Boyz n the Hood (as it is sometimes hailed), it does spark interesting conversation. While gang life was a very real force in the 1980s and 90s, mainstream media has a tendency to mask the influence of Asian American gangsters. Baby tackles this in the right way -- rarely romanticizing characters and showing life as consequential. --Catherine Manabat
dir: Charlie Nguyen
An impressive, action-packed thriller from Charlie Nguyen, The Rebel is the latest in the recent wave of films by Vietnamese Americans set in Vietnam. Featuring much of the same team that brought Journey from the Fall and more recently Owl and the Sparrow to the festival scene, The Rebel is quite easily the least interesting of the bunch, although in many ways is just as remarkable. Its attraction certainly doesn't lie in the storytelling. It flirts with political intrigue, romance, family sacrifice, nationalism, and a number of other period action clichés that have circulated from Hollywood to Hong Kong to Paris to Bombay. The only plot elements even remotely resembling anything new is the characterization of a traitorous Vietnamese villain (played by Dustin Nguyen) caught between French masters and the prospect of Vietnamese sovereignty. But any semblance of hope is dissipated by an uninspired, haphazard execution; the acting, the direction, the camerawork all seem to be on autopilot to nowhere. Yet The Rebel is completely watchable entertainment because between the passionless storytelling are incredible action set pieces. The auteur of the film is truly Johnny Nguyen, who served as producer, action choreographer, and lead actor, charismatically kicking (and punching and body-slamming) life into an otherwise banal film with hand-to-hand action rivaling anything from Hong Kong these days. Johnny Nguyen may not be much of an actor, but he possesses the physicality and good looks to make him a star. Equally impressive is actress Thanh Van Ngo, who has the moves of Angela Mao from the 1970s, but a sexy ferocity that's uniquely her own. Together, they can be a duo to reinvigorate mainstream Vietnamese/Vietnamese American cinema. They've got the swagger to electrify better projects, but unfortunately, here they're rebels without a cause. --Brian Hu
Falling for Grace
dir. Fay Ann Lee
During the screening of Falling for Grace at the VC Film Festival, there were two major glitches and a whole scene that was missing subtitles during Grace's interaction with her Chinese-speaking parents. That is to say, some parts of the movie really didn't need subtitles to even be there -- the plot (generalizable as: girl gets mistaken for someone else, boy falls in love with girl, and then boy finds out truth about girl) is legible, holes and all. As a tribute to the classical romantic comedy, Fay Ann Lee's performance as Grace in her writing and directorial debut falls short in the innovation category, while the chemistry between Grace and Andrew (Gale Harold) was sometimes very questionable. However, Lee does take the old formula and add to it the issue of immigrant sweatshops, and multiply its effect with a great supporting cast, resulting in a sound production that has its moments. Lee is in current negotiations for a theatrical release and though I can't guarantee that audience members will fall for Grace, Margaret Cho's performance as Janie, Grace's best friend, and Ken Leung's portrayal of Ming, Grace's brother, are sure to have viewers laughing as they fall to the floor. --My Thanh Mac
dir. Anna Koharu Biller
Click here for APA's full review of Viva.
Click here for APA's capsule reviews of Ang Pamana: The Inheritance (dir: Romeo Candido) and Tie A Yellow Ribbon (dir: Joy Dietrich) from the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival.
Date Posted: 5/11/2007